By Toni Morrison
Alfred A. Knopf, 167 pages, $24
Toni Morrison's characters are a rare thing. They're so vividly drawn. That's evident, I know, to anyone who has read her books. I remember times, staring down at the pages of Song of Solomon, when I've felt other eyes staring at me. I'd look up, startled, expecting to find Milkman sitting in the room with me.
It was always creepy, but impressive too.
Yet I probably wouldn't have picked up A Mercy had I not attended her reading in Charleston back in July. I loved Song of Solomon, with its surreal occurrences, smooth rhythm, and epic tone. But for some reason Morrison remains one of those authors that comes to mind each time I need a new book to read, and each time she gets pushed back to the next time.
Maybe it's the commitment her books demand. But when she began reading excerpts from A Mercy in the Sottile Theater, I was immediately riveted, and remained so until the last word. From that moment until I finally finished it, A Mercy has been in my head, I'd say almost at all times. And it didn't disappoint — it's that good.
The story itself is a short one: Florens, a slave in the year 1690, journeys through a forest to deliver a letter from her mistress to someone we only know as "you." The letter is a matter of life and death not only for her mistress, but for Florens as well — she is consumed, positively on fire, with passion for the person she is going to find. This is the first voice we hear, but so many others follow: Jacob, the man who took Florens as payment for a bad debt; Rebekka, Jacob's wife and Florens' mistress; the Native American Lina and Sorrow, a white woman, both of whom are Florens' fellow slaves; Scully, an indentured servant on a farm near Jacob and Rebekka's home; and, all too briefly, Florens' nameless mother.
However, there is another, more constant voice that can be heard resonating through the pages: abandonment. By mother, by lover, by child, even by each other — every character, slave, and master has been marked by their own casting off. Their truest similarity is this shared loss; their truest difference, not gender or social position, but the type of scar that remains.
Perhaps that is why Florens is the star, so to speak, of this novel. Like her passion for "you," her scar runs fathoms deeper, and is immeasurably more disfiguring, than anyone else's. Specifically, her wound was made when her mother, with Florens' baby brother in her arms, pleaded with a man (who is, in fact, Jacob) to take her daughter as payment for a debt, instead of her. And he did. This casting off instills in Florens a morbid fear of "mothers nursing greedy babies." She tells us, furtively, "I know how their eyes go when they choose. How they raise them to look at me hard, saying something I cannot hear. Saying something important to me, but holding the little boy's hand."
This "choice," made when she was 7, is "a darkness I am born with, outside, yes, but inside as well and the inside dark is small, feathered and toothy." This passionate, deserted slave girl is as frightening as she is utterly enthralling.
So where, then, is the mercy of the title? In her typically moving and wise manner, Morrison has given it to us, and to those of her characters who can understand, as the mirror image of the very abandonment they are each variously coming to terms with. Scars are rips, breaks, grief made physical by the body — but they are also healing. As in life, not everyone in this book discovers that; but the ones who do, I hope, feel themselves whole again.
I know I will look at my scars differently.