Sunday, September 27, 2009

A Mercy by Toni Morrison

Whenever my interest is piqued by a book or author that is new to me, regardless of what caught my initial attention, I always pick up the most recent work by the author. I particularly don't like to start my induction to a writer that is new to me with the work that established the writer's fame. In some cases in is unavoidable, but not so with Toni Morrison.

I mention this here, at the start of my commentary, because so often the work of renown--in Ms Morrison's case Beloved--is so frequently referenced that it can become difficult to tell which book a reviewer is commenting on. As if having written a classic helps substantiate the quality of all the other works written by that author. Having not yet read Beloved (it is in my to-be-read stack) I offer here free commentary to A mercy, without any dependancy to Beloved.

I found this to be a very difficult read with a payoff that was obscured by a consistently awkward presentation. The multiple points of view force you to stay alert as a reader which is fine by me. The broken English which some characters use is also okay, even if it did get old. (I found it to be a tiresome device to use in the first place.) Yes, it yielded some personality and told much about the particular character, but it did so at the expense of my personal ease-of-reading, which I, of course, value more than any story telling device. I found it hard to make out a central story that all the characters could relate to. Each was doing their own thing, any unifying thread among the characters was thin. I felt Lina, Florens, and Mrs. Vaark--the all female leading cast--all had their own stories to tell and their was not moment of recocilliation for all their stories. This lack of cohesion also detracted from what I felt was the book's strongest point of interest: the 'mercy' itself.

The story was highly enjoyable but getting through it was rough. I can't help but feel that if it were told in a more standard, third person or even a single character's first person point of view that it would have had a stronger affect on me as a reader. All the characters seemed detached from each other, and certainly from me as a reader. Some events were shared by all and some were their own that made them who they were. Once you read far enough into A Mercy there is no confusion as who is who. All the characters are distinct, but for such a short book, there is a steep learning curve.

It sounds silly to say there were 'glimpses of brilliance' considering the author, but …(see above disclaimer) in some of the rare third person narrative I could easily see why the author is so highly regarded. There was beautiful prose, and writing that truly connected me to the situation, and the characters involved. But they were few and always seemed out of place among the garbled poor grammar of one character and the inadequate story telling of another.

At one point in reading, I set to musing if anyone else could have written this book. Or rather if anyone else could have gotten it published. Having already been awarded quite literally ever literary award there is to give, no agent or editor is going to send back a work of Toni Morrison and say, "Let's work on a few things."

I appreciate something different. Furthermore I think it's great when such an established author is willing to try something out of the ordinary such as the presentation elements of A mercy, but I can't help but wonder if a first time writer or anyone not of the stature of Toni Morrison had written this book if it would have gotten through the powers that control publication.

I do not want my feelings of this work to come across as bad, or that I feel the writing was poor. Only it felt like an experiment that was forced upon an existing great story that may have better been told in a more conventional manner.

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