Tag Archives: Nobel Prize

Beloved – Toni Morrison

toni-morrison-beloved

Toni Morrison is kind of a big shot. Beloved is perhaps her most famous novel, earning her the Pulitzer prize and undoubtedly contributing to the Nobel Prize committee’s decision to make her 1993’s Literature laureate – just six years after it was published. The novel is considered to be one of the strongest depictions of the African-American struggle in the United States during the period of slavery, and is a creepy, gothic, dramatic fiction in its own right (not that you’d know it from the typically reductive ‘female writer’ book cover; a flower, dying? Really?) but beyond that, I knew virtually nothing about it. Be warned – this review contains spoilers.

The plot follows Sethe, a former slave and single mother who lives in a house known as 124, a place she inhabited after escaping her life in slavery. Originally she lived there with her mother-in-law and group of children, but since her mother-in-law died and her two sons ran away, Sethe is left only with her 18-year-old daughter, Denver – and the malicious spirit of the baby girl she murdered herself 20 years ago. The story begins when a man she knew in her time as a slave arrives at the house, Paul D, who drives away the spirit and begins to implement a family structure in the absence of Sethe’s vanished husband. However, just as he succeeds, a young woman appears who coincidentlly shares the name of Sethe’s murdered daughter – Beloved – and is generally believed to be a revenant of her. As Sethe and Denver welcome ‘Beloved’ into the family home, their small chance at familial bliss is threatened by the newcomer’s intentions.

Perhaps the most persistent question I had throughout the novel was: what drove Sethe to murder her baby girl? She is not presented as a dangerous, insane or unloving mother throughout the novel, and for a long while I was mystified. Yet Sethe not only killed Beloved but attempted to murder all of her children at the same time, including a very young Denver, and would have succeeded were it not for an intervention. It was only when I researched the novel did I unravel the reasoning; Morrison was inspired by the story of Margaret ‘Peggy’ Garner, an African-American slave who notoriously killed her two-year-old daughter instead of allowing her to grow up into a world of slavery. It’s probably no coincidence that the surname of the slave masters and thus the slaves in the novel is Garner. The dark reasoning behind this is dwelt on later in the book; Morrison details how slavery corrupts them and leaves them permanently ‘dirty’ – by killing her children before they have a chance to be sucked into this world, she prays her children can retain their purity and not be tarnished by the influence of white people. Yet there was a supernatural element to it, too: when Sethe is discovered with a dead child, trying to murder her other children, it is described as being almost ritualistic, and her eyes have gone completely black, with no whites visible.

As you’d expect, the lines between the living and dead are very much blurred, which is a typical trait of magic realism. Beyond the fantasy, there’s a very real, human story at play. I haven’t read another novel with comparable tension between mother and daughter; having had a close relationship with my own late mum I struggled to envision a distant relationship between Sethe and Denver (particularly as, as pathetic as it sounds, Sethe’s physical description is quite close to my mum’s), but given Sethe’s past actions it’s not exactly surprising that Denver would stay wary around her.

When Beloved ‘returns’ she is a fully fledged adult, much as she would have been had she lived. I’ve read some reviews that imply it’s ambiguous as to whether or not she is in fact Sethe’s daughter, back from the dead – I thought it clear that she was, particularly when she drops hints to Denver, but critics seem to find it an issue for debate. An interpretation I read is that Sethe and Beloved’s relationship is there to represent separated families – this adult Beloved lost her parents, whilst Sethe lost her daughter, so they turn to each other to try to rebuild something they both lost. This is speculated in the novel, too – a secondary character believes that Beloved is in fact a random woman who escaped from captivity.

Am I convinced? Not so much. Beloved’s disappearance at the end is pretty fantastical, as is her entire final scene (the women of the village gather to drive Beloved away and see their own younger selves looking back at them; Beloved is described as having exploded). Plus, the adult Beloved has the scar on her neck from when Sethe sawed it as a baby. To me, Beloved’s a revenant, all right.

Predictably important themes in the book are memory and past trauma. Sethe and her husband are both haunted by a scenario in which Sethe was attacked while pregnant and had her milk ‘stolen from her’ by white men, not long before she attempted to murder all her children; this incident contributes to the theme of the breakdown of the mother/child relationship, as that milk was not theirs to take. Given that a strong theme in the novel is the dehumanising effect of slavery, this was a particularly stark example of the entitlement the whites felt over the blacks, and was horrifying to read.

There’s a fairly famous film adaptation starring Oprah Winfrey, but with poor reviews I didn’t feel inclined to watch it, even though a young Thandie Newton plays Beloved, which would be interesting to see. Still, I think for the time being I’ll let the story stay in my memory as it is on the page, not the screen. So, four stars from me – a truly shocking, haunting, and altogether compelling read. Not one to be missed.

[Coming next: The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie]

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One Hundred Years of Solitude – Gabriel García Márquez

One Hundred Years of Solitude

One Hundred Years of Solitude has been on my reading list for a LONG time, but I’ve never got around to reading it before now. It’s arguably the greatest and most influential novel to come out of South America, a classic in every sense of the world. García Márquez became an international phenomenon as a result of writing it, gaining awards worldwide (and the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1982). I actually went to a discussion at Hay Festival last year with travel writer Michael Jacobs, who met García Márquez during his travels around Colombia not long ago. Jacobs mentioned a story (I can’t remember if he witnessed it first hand or if he was just told about it) about García Márquez reading One Hundred Years of Solitude after he’d developed dementia and saying ‘whoever wrote this book… he must be a genius.’ Despite the sadness, there’s something maddeningly sweet about that, the author of one of the greatest novels of all time reading the book HE wrote and appreciating its beauty from an unknown perspective.

García Márquez is Colombian and the book was originally written in Spanish, but it has been translated in 37 languages since it was written in 1967. I read the English version which was translated by Gregory Rabassa. I am always a tiny bit wary of novel translations, particularly when a book is described as being poetic (as this is) – how much of the sentiment and wit is lost in translation? – but I still could appreciate the beauty and craftmanship of the writing, even if it no doubt differed slightly from its original. It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly when the novel is set. The characters have a very basic understanding of science and consider ordinary objects such as pianos and magnets some kind of magic, but as the town is isolated, it’s hard to work out if they are in sync with the rest of the world or very behind. Certainly it’s not set in modern times. This review does contain spoilers, so turn away now if you want to read it with a fresh perspective.

The book is set over a century (funnily enough!) and focuses on a town named Macondo, with our leading characters being the founding family who dwell within it (the Buendías). Followed over several generations, we witness the daily life of this family and the various tribulations that the separate characters go through throughout their lives. The novel pretty much defined the genre of magical realism, subtly blending fantasy and magic with realistic rural life in Macondo. Starting with the founders of the family, José Arcadio and his wife Úrsula, we learn about how the two of them founded the town and created a family line that was doomed by repetitive destruction and selfish whims.

On the first page of my copy of the book was a family tree, which was something I had to constantly refer back to throughout reading. Following the family line might not have been such a problem if the men didn’t all have the same names: every male character in the Buendía line was either called José Arcadio or Aureliano. This STILL might not have been a problem if only one or two were alive at a time, but naturally-speaking all of the characters were blessed with extremely long life – Úrsula in particular lived well over 120 years. I say naturally-speaking as some of the characters did die young if they were killed or murdered, but the ones who were left to stick it out did a proper job of it (which has become another feature of magic realism). Despite the confusion of a child living at the same time as his great-great-grandfater (and every man down the line having the same name), the characterisation didn’t really suffer. Whilst the characters were similar owing to the repetitive nature of the Buendía family (more on that later), each one seemed to have its own distinctive personality and desires. There’s a theme that all the José Arcadios are rather feisty and loud and all the Aurelianos are more calm and pensive, which is interesting as at one point identical twins are born, one named José Arcadio Segundo and the other Aureliano Segundo, and the theory circulates that they were perhaps switched at some point during childhood due to the way they grew up with the personalities attributed to the other namesake.

Why one hundred years of solitude? Loneliness and isolation are very prevalent themes in the novel, initially describing the town which is independent and out on the sticks, but eventually each of the characters seems to succumb to solitude as a result of their actions or state of mind. Indeed, despite the fact all of the characters have ordinary desires and more than enough opportunity for love, the only characters who maintain happy and stable relationships are the two founders and the two right at the very end of the line. Both of these couples are connected by incest (disturbingly, incest is a common recurrence for the Buendías) and whilst Úrsula fears her children will be born with curly pig tails as a result, it isn’t until the end of the line that a child is born with such a mutation.

Like many classics, the novel breaks the ‘show, don’t tell’ rule of writing. This rule is pretty solid – for example, if you’re reading a novel, it’s better to learn about a character’s personality by the way they speak or their body language, as opposed to reading an outward description of what the character is like. From a writer’s perspective, this a way of engaging the reader on a much more emotional level than just having them as a passive listener to a story. Whilst I agree with this rule and feel constantly aware of it in my own writing, I’m always uncertain about its place in the classics. When you’re studying writing, breaking this rule is ingrained in you as being one of the worst things you can do – but, as I said, SO many classics are written this way, some being considered the greatest novels of all time (this one is a good example, but there are plenty). I do believe it made One Hundred Years of Solitude that little bit more difficult to read, but I also think that due to the magic realism and the rural, South American setting, the narrative began to resemble a spoken fairytale, which made it into something even more poetic. It’s not an easy book to read by any stretch, but it’s incredibly rewarding. I read it very slowly (it was a great companion for the commute) but my friend Misha’s mum said she found it very difficult indeed, despite her son’s positive reaction. Indeed, my dad spoke of it very highly, so it’s interesting to hear such a variety of perspectives of it.

It doesn’t have a film adaptation as far as I’m aware, which doesn’t particularly surprise me. The beauty of magic realism is the way fantasy is very subtly interwoven into a book’s plot, but I think the subtlety might be lost on a screen, although there are a lot of themes that a film adaptation would be able to explore and turn into powerful and moving on-screen entertainment. There are also some sections that painted such a vivid picture in the mind that would look visually stunning (particularly the moments of war and rebellion), but at this point, however, García Márquez hasn’t sold the rights, and it’s looking like he never will.

So, Goodreads review. One Hundred Years of Solitude was an incredibly powerful book and one I won’t forget, but the pace and difficulty of reading it bumps a star off. I also felt as if the end was dragging (it could have ended around 100 pages before it did). With that in mind, four stars. Still, I’m ready to tackle some more of García Márquez soon – I’ve got a lifetime’s work to catch up on.

[Coming next: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy by John le Carré]

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