I Just Read: Beloved

⭐⭐⭐⭐ 1/2 stars

Note: This is a spoiler-free review

Beloved, by Toni Morrison, is a fantastical, historical fictional novel that was published in 1987. Beloved tells the story of former African-American slave Sethe. Set after the American Civil War, Sethe managed to escape from the clutches of Sweet Home, a beautiful yet horrifying plantation settlement in Kentucky. Yet, even after 18 years of freedom in Ohio, even after spending each moment of freedom with her 18-year-old daughter, Denver, Sethe cannot seem to escape the horrors of her past. From being reunited with another former slave from Sweet Home, Paul D, to being haunted (in more ways than one) by the ghosts of her past when someone she thought long dead, walks right back into Sethe and Denver’s lives.

As usual, it seems, this was another book that I read for American Literature, as apart of our Southern Gothic unit; however, it’s one that I almost instantly feel in love with. From the rich language, to the fully realized characters, to the vivid settings, to the dark and haunting images and themes the book tackles, all of it makes for a beautiful and immersive reading experience.

This was one book that I was actually glad to have read in a literature class because we could talk about the plot and I could clear up certain story beats that I missed. While the language is very, very rich and poetic, Morrison’s writing style does take some getting used to. She could have these long, poetic, vivid sentences, but buried deep within one of those sentences is a very important plot point that I (more often will not) will miss. So while I appreciate how the language sucks you in, it’s also very complicated to read. It defiantly took at least 50 pages into before I started getting used to the language. It’s definitely one, if your like me, to read with others to discuss plot points, the timeline of certain events, and what certain passages imply.

Another feature of Morrison’s writing is how she jumps around in time. One part of a chapter will be Sethe and Denver talking in the present, and then merely a paragraph later, we will jump to Sethe in the past, escaping from Sweet Home. Again, this is a feature that confused me in the first 50 pages, and while it can get tricky to keep track of where we are, I did get used to it. In fact, that’s one of the books greatest strengths. The way that Morrison reveals information about the characters and their past kept me engaged through the whole story. Rather than revealing an entire character’s backstory in one chapter, little by little she would reveal more and more about the characters (mostly Paul D, Sethe, and Baby Suggs) and their past. The information was never forced either, as the jumping around in time kept me completely immersed in the narrative, as the three characters I mentioned earlier have very dense backstories. It was much more engaging for me to have each character reveal their past little by little rather than just being told how they ended up where they are in an entire chapter.

Paul D (Danny Glover) protects Sethe (Oprah Winfrey) in the 1998 film adaptation of Beloved (dir. by Jonathan Demme.)

I also think that Morrison approached the characterizations very interestingly. When I discussed the book with my classmates, I found that early on in the story, we had very different opinions on the characters. None of the main characters, even until the very end, seem entirely good or entirely evil. Despite some of these characters being victims of slavery, terrible abuses, and great tragedies, we aren’t always sure how to feel about them. We want to feel sympathetic towards them, but at the same time they themselves have done some dark things in the past. Sethe,and Paul D, to be more specific, both have lost people they were close to and endured unimaginable trauma to escape slavery, have also done or said terrible things. Even Denver, who appears quite stubborn and resistant to change at first, does have a good reason to hold onto the past. This create characters- and an experience- that appears all too human.

The final thing I wish to talk about is the fantastical aspect of the story. Without giving too much away, this book does create a fine line between ghosts and other fantastical happenings, and 19th century America. All of this does, however, come together beautifully to create a very dynamic reading experience all revolving around the past and how- in more ways than one- it could come back to haunt you. The final story, as a result, is both tragic (as Morrison does not shy away from the horrors of slavery) while also providing a ray of hope that, while the past is inescapable, there is a way to move forward.

If I didn’t make it clear already- I loved Beloved. While it is a tricky read, I think the rich language, tragic and all too human characters, immersive historical setting, time period, and delicate blending of the fantasy and the reality, makes for a very memorable reading experience. If you think you could handle some of the darker and more violent themes and images, and don’t mind books with denser language, this is one I would definitely check out.

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