Voices in the Wilderness

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A review of Toni Morrison’s A Mercy (with help from John Updike)

For weeks I’ve been trying to write a review of A Mercy, Toni Morrison’s brilliant new novel set in the wilderness of 17th century colonial America, long before the idea of the United States of America was conceived. I love the book, but it is not an easy read. Once won’t do it; as soon as I finished it, I turned back to the beginning to figure out where I had been and what had hit me. The second time was better than the first: It’s poetry.

As it turns out, John Updike’s last published work was a New Yorker review of A Mercy (Nov. 3, 2008). It seems he did not find it an easy read, either, and I’m guessing that even he, a master of the review, had trouble writing this one. One of the things I admired most about Updike was his generosity, but here, abandoning his characteristically appreciative approach, he began with a scolding: “Toni Morrison has a habit, perhaps traceable to the pernicious influence of William Faulkner, of plunging into the narrative before the reader has a clue to what is going on.”

To prove his point, Updike quotes liberally from the opening pages, after which, to salvage the situation and spare us the figuring out, he takes our hands and leads us through the text, translating it, spelling out its ambiguities; at the same time he turns what he sees as the book’s virtues into flaws:

Morrison’s epic sense of place and time overshadows her depiction of people; she does better at finding poetry in this raw scrappy colonial world than in populating another installment of her noble and necessary fictional project of exposing the infamies of slavery and the hardships of being African-American. The white characters in A Mercy come to life more readily than the black, and they less ambiguously dramatize America’s discovery and settlement.

Why does the praise of “noble and necessary” sound faint to me? Putting that aside, would Updike forego the poetry for a better job of populating her “noble and necessary project?” And how did he imagine black characters could “dramatize America’s discovery and settlement” when they were brought as slaves to be bought and sold?

By the way, there is indeed one free African-American in the novel, a handsome ironworker and a healer who is much sought after for his talents. He comes and goes as he pleases, beholden to no one. He most clearly embodies what it means to be free.

A Mercy is a short book—167 pages—dense and complicated in its architecture, the word Morrison uses to talk about structure. In twelve chapters she constructs her work, echoing Rashomon (or Faulkner)—alternating voices, points of view, and time. To my mind, it’s a fugue with overlapping themes chasing and answering each other; it’s also a thicket, hard to penetrate, but the effort to find your way through it, to hold all the voices in your head at once, is part of the reward.

Florens, a literate slave girl, carves her version of the story on the walls, ceiling, and floor of her dead master’s empty house; she writes to her lover in the present to explain her past: “Let me start with what I know for certain. The beginning begins with the shoes.” There is a lot about shoes and feet in this story. Hers that were once too tender for life, like the feet of a Portuguese lady, are as hard as cypress at the end. She also lets him (and us) know: “I can write from memory the Nicene Creed including all the commas,” because she and her mother were taught secretly and illegally by a priest who said it was what God wanted, no matter if they fined him, imprisoned him, or gunned him down. An amalgam of innocence, wildness, and self discovery, Florens’s remarkable voice provides the novel’s opening theme.

In a beautiful moment, Florens describes falling irresistibly in love as she sees the blacksmith at work on her master’s new house, forging two copper snakes that meet at the top of the gate: “The shine of water runs down your spine and I have shock at myself for wanting to lick there. I run away into the cowshed to stop this thing from happening inside me. Nothing stops it. There is only you.” Of course, trouble lies ahead.

The voices of the other main characters are interwoven in the third-person past tense, amplifying the composition—and what an ensemble it is. There is Jacob Vaark, the English-Dutch farmer/landowner and successful trader who half by chance assembles an odd group on his property. His wife Rebekka is a mail-order bride, “plump comely and capable,” sent from England by her parents. “I shat among strangers to get to this land,” she tells Lina. “There was no other way, packed like cod, between decks.” Lina, a native American, whose village was wiped out by the pox and arson, was purchased by Vaark; and Sorrow, a dazed young girl washed ashore from a shipwreck, whom he takes out of pity. Lina knows more about how to survive on the land than any of the others. She trembles over the danger of a man killing fifty trees without asking their permission and replacing them with a “profane monument to himself.” There are two white indentured servants, Willard and Scully, who may as well be slaves; but they are less vulnerable than the women, who are defined by the man or the religion they belong to. One of Morrison’s many aims is to bring light to this period in our history when anyone, white, black, or what have you, might be up for sale or rent.

Tracing the course of Morrison’s work, Updike concludes:

As Morrison moves deeper into a more visionary realism, a betranced pessimism saps her plots of the urgency that hope imparts to human adventures… Varied and authoritative and frequently beautiful though the language is, [A Mercy] circles around a vision, both turgid and static, of new world turning old, and poisoned from the start.

I feel brash arguing with Updike, whose wisdom has been passionately eulogized from all quarters. But he’s wrong about “betranced pessimism” and about the vision being turgid and static. That’s not what I read in A Mercy, nor is it what Morrison has to say about the future. It’s as if he missed or dismissed the final chords of her music—though he’s right about the beautiful language.

Among Florens’ last words are: “Hear me? Slave. Free. I last.” Then she adds, “I will keep one sadness. That all this time I cannot know what my mother is telling me. Nor can she know what I am wanting to tell her. Mãe, you can have pleasure now because the soles of my feet are hard as cypress.”

With this still ringing in our ears, we are given Florens’ mother’s voice, the last in this polyphonic novel. “There was no protection,” she says. And again: “There is no protection. To be female in this place is to be an open wound that cannot heal. Even if scars form, the festering is ever below.” Granted, this is pessimistic! Just as Florens wrote to her lover in the opening, in the novel’s end her mother explains her story and begs her daughter to understand why she gave her away. Three times she says “no protection,” but the last time she adds, “there is difference.” Not miracles from God, but mercy from a human.

Anita Burdman Feferman is the author of From Trotsky to Gödel: The Life of Jean van Heijenoort and Alfred Tarski: Life and Logic. It is not an accident that her biographies are about logicians because she has been married to one for a very long time. She also writes fiction and memoir. More from this author →