Beloved – by Toni Robinson
Published in July 2007
Here is the slightly edited transcript of my book review, that I recently published on Goodreads.
I read this book because it was on Stephen King’s reading list.
I knew that Toni Morrison had won the Pulitzer Prize for ‘Beloved’, but I didn’t know that she has also won the Nobel Prize for literature for her earlier work. It just shows how much I know….
I have a question.
I have been an avid reader of fiction for over sixty years and I have a particular predilection for 18th and 19th-century authors, but I also have read some great writing from 20th and even 21st-century writers. I must have read thousands of books in my time, yet I often find modern, prize-winning authors very difficult to read.
Sometimes their work is, frankly, boring, (as was the case with Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian), and with others I often find it quite difficult to follow the plots and understand the characters. Why is this? Am I so stupid? Yet I can read all the greats of the past – like Hardy, Tolstoy, Austen, Trollope, Elliot, Joyce, James, Golding, Orwell, Huxley and dozens more with ease and great enjoyment.
I recently read two romantic novels by Jojo Moyes – very much a child of the 21st Century, and they were beautifully written and very enjoyable. Yet others – like Donna Tart (so boring) and, I’m afraid, Nobel Prize winner Toni Morrison’s ‘Beloved’ was quite difficult to get through.
Let me make one thing clear – Morrison has a wonderful talent for writing and her prose is often poetic and quite beautiful. The events she takes us through in countless flashbacks are almost too troubling and traumatic to read. I fully understand that she had to tell us about this shocking, utterly disturbing period of American history, (the decade of the 1860’s – before during and after the civil war).
The scenes she describes and the suffering that was endured by the blacks, both before and after the war, is a revelation – even to someone who has already read much about slavery in the USA. Morrison tells us about the day-to-day, casual off-hand cruelty and humiliation that would never have occurred to us.
It isn’t just beatings and rapes – it is the utter degradation of an entire Negro population in the most disgusting and contemptible manner. In short, the American Negroes were regarded as – and were treated as – animals by their white owners. She gets under their skins and tells us how they must have felt: their suffering, their despair, their desire to die and put an end to their miserable, wretched, hopeless, inhuman existence.
Through her characters, she tells us what it was like to be bought and sold – to never know your parents or your children and for the women to be passed around like breeding machines, as well as being abused and discarded by the brutal white men.
It is truly dreadful, and it makes us realize just how evil the slave owners were. Let’s face it; they wouldn’t treat their own pets like they did these poor unfortunates. What sort of culture could tolerate such cruelty and disregard for their fellow men? The answer is a white, Christian culture….
‘Beloved’ is a book that had to be written and I am glad that I read it. The subject matter was so powerful that I was determined to get through it, even though on many occasions I felt like giving up.
It wasn’t the subject matter that was stopping me. It was the convoluted manner in which she wrote the novel. For most of the time I was forever trying to figure out what it was all about. This is because she kept dropping odd snippets of past events and flashes of characters from an earlier period that left me bemused and confused. Then slowly, as the book drew on, I would start to comprehend and put the jigsaw together in dozens upon dozens of flashbacks.
I am quite sure that this style of writing is considered to be very clever; but for me, I was simply puzzled and irritated. I was at a loss to follow what was happening and on many occasions, I didn’t even know at what point in the chronology of the protagonists’ lives I was reading about.
Maybe modern readers love to be challenged and stimulated in this way, but I’m afraid it isn’t for me. Beloved is still a great book and I am glad I read it – because I learned a lot.
But I didn’t really enjoy it. If the story had started at the start, and the reader could follow all the characters through the various stages of their lives in chronological order I am quite sure I would have loved it. A few flashbacks are fine, but ‘Beloved’ had so many flashbacks that half the time I didn’t know where I was in the scheme of things. But maybe that’s just me. Unfortunately, it is for this reason, that I can only award it three stars.
But what do I know?