Toni Morrison – A Mercy


I finished this book over two weeks ago, and have been struggling to write the review ever since. I honestly hoped I wouldn’t have to drag it into the new year, but there you have it…

This is the first Toni Morrison I’ve read, and I started the book with great trepidation. I’ve heard phenomenal things about Toni Morrison, and I was intimidated… unsure of what to expect. I really hoped I’d enjoy the book, and it would make me go out and buy more books by Morrison instantaneously, but unfortunately, I was left feeling fairly indifferent. I didn’t like the book. I didn’t dislike the book… and I’m not accustomed to having that kind of a reaction to a book – especially as I’ve mulled over it for about two weeks!

A reasonably short book (almost a novella), A Mercy is the story set in the 17th century, and provides insight into the life and times of four women living under Jacob Vaark’s roof, prior to slavery becoming commonplace. Vaark is a Dutch trader, who has a farm in rural America, and he gets Florens (a young slave girl) as payment for a bad debt. Rebekka (his wife from England), Lina (a Native American who survived small pox, and now runs the farm), and Sorrow (another servant, who survived a shipwreck, and is grossly incompetent) make up the other three women.

The book starts with Florens’ first person narrative, as she leaves the farm in search of the blacksmith, who has medical expertise – expertise needed to save the life of her mistress, Rebekka. However, Florens’ primary reason for finding the blacksmith is her unequivocal love for him.

The narrative of each chapter  focuses on one or the other of the female characters (as well as Vaark). We hear their story, determine their origins, and figure out their co-dependencies on each other, as well as their insecurities. Be it Rebekka’s ambivalence when she first arrives, and see that Lina runs the farm, or Lina’s annoyance with Sorrow’s lack of commitment to the jobs at hand; be it Lina’s overprotectiveness about Florens, or Florens’ desire to wear shoes – just like a lady!

There are multiple layers; a multitude of relationships and emotions explored; events of historical significance weaved into the story. However, I found the book lacking depth, and the characters to be fairly two-dimensional. There was a lot packed into the book, and I found that I couldn’t relate to them. Frankly speaking, I didn’t really care much about them… other than Florens. The opening chapter had me fascinated, and I found the final chapter to be redeeming, to an extent. But – can a book really tick with just two chapters, and some other captivating events?

Maybe I didn’t get the book. Maybe it’s just too intelligent for me. Or maybe, it’s not one of Morrison’s better works. I don’t know – it’s the first Morrison I’ve read! Would you recommend trying out another book by the much acclaimed Toni Morrison? Okay, that was a rhetorical question. The main question is: which one?

Rating : C

16 Responses to “Toni Morrison – A Mercy”

  1. The only book I have ever read by Toni Morrison was Paradise. It was one of the early Oprah Picks and she was so ga-ga over the thing, I immediately went out and bought the hard cover. To say I hated it is a gross understatement. It turned me off TM’s book forever. And that was over 15 years ago!

  2. 3 historyofshe

    I felt the same way about Beloved, also by Morrison. I’ve heard a lot of people say it’s their favorite of hers though.

  3. It’s not you. She’s not my cup of tea either; I hated BELOVED and I would not try her again. I think you’re either going to be into her or not. IT’S NOT YOU! :-)

  4. I am sorry that you didn’t enjoy this at all. As a HUGE Toni Morrison fan I can testify that this is not her best work and it is slight and unsatisfactory in some respects. I did enjoy it though but not as much as Beloved or Sula. I read The Bluest Eye early last year and loved that too although it is regarded (by some) as her weakest, being her first.

    I have been rationing out Toni Morrison’s books over the years but will be reading Song of Solomon soon. If you are willing to give her another go then perhaps we could arrange to read it concurrently? I’d love to but don’t feel pressured as I’ll read it anyway and maybe my review will tempt you anyway!

    • I’ve heard incredible things about Beloved, so was wondering if I’d started off the wrong foot.

      I’d be more than happy to concurrently read Song of Solomon. Let me know when you plan to read it, so that I can try getting hold of the book before that! Thanks for the offer :)

      • I do plan on reading it soon although I’m trying not to restrict myself reading-wise to set plans in set months. What if we say by the end of February, which gives you time to get hold of the book? Let me know if you haven’t and we can postpone; I’m ready to read it at any point between now and then.

  5. Clearly you were not bowled over by this book, but I am impressed that you still managed to write an objective review which suggests to me that I would like it. Great stuff!

    Maybe Toni Morrison is not for you (I have been keeping quiet about my Jorge Luis Borges debacle!) but the only one I have read (and loved,) so far, is Beloved, and I would suggest it if you were determined to try again. I started Paradise just before Christmas, but realised it wasn’t going to be palatable over the festive season. Perhaps A Mercy was the wrong book at the wrong time?

    • I really hope you like it, if you end up reading it.

      Maybe you’re right, and A Mercy just wasn’t a festive book. I’ll be looking forward to reading your thoughts on Paradise, when you get back to it, and see if I can leech a copy of Beloved. Might read Song of Solomon prior to that, as Claire’s suggested.

  6. I’m still groping in the dark about which Morrison book to read next. I was thinking maybe Beloved. But seeing how you are planning to read Song of Solomon concurrently with Claire, maybe I could join in too? Though I’m going to have to hunt it and make sure it’s in the library somewhere…

    I’ll try pick the book up at about the same time you two start reading it. =)

  7. @Claire : End of February sounds good. Like you said, it gives me ample time to get hold of the book. Thanks again for the offer :)

  8. Hmm looking at your top books of the year I’m thinking you’d probably like the experimental nature of Beloved’s writing, but if you’re not convinced I suggest Jazz to ease yourself into her writing style. While it also plays with language the structure is a lot simpler than Beloved, which can at times take off into these (wonderful) flights of experimentation which can leave you wondering what is happening. I’m a fan of Morrisson’s early books but a couple of years ago I read ‘Love’ and was disappointingly surprised at the negative contrast.

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