A powerful tragedy distilled into a jewel of a masterpiece by the Nobel Prize–winning author of Beloved
and, almost like a prelude to that story, set two centuries earlier.
In the 1680s the slave trade was still in its infancy. In the Americas, virulent religious and class divisions, prejudice and oppression were rife, providing the fertile soil in which slavery and race hatred were planted and took root.
Jacob is an Anglo-Dutch trader and adventurer, with a small holding in the harsh north. Despite his distaste for dealing in “flesh,” he takes a small slave girl in part payment for a bad debt from a plantation owner in Catholic Maryland. This is Florens, “with the hands of a slave and the feet of a Portuguese lady.” Florens looks for love, first from Lina, an older servant woman at her new master’s house, but later from a handsome blacksmith, an African, never enslaved.
There are other voices: Lina, whose tribe was decimated by smallpox; their mistress, Rebekka, herself a victim of religious intolerance back in England; Sorrow, a strange girl who’s spent her early years at sea; and finally the devastating voice of Florens’ mother. These are all men and women inventing themselves in the wilderness.A Mercy
reveals what lies beneath the surface of slavery. But at its heart it is the ambivalent, disturbing story of a mother who casts off her daughter in order to save her, and of a daughter who may never exorcise that abandonment.
Acts of mercy may have unforeseen consequences.
“A horrifying act stood at the center of Toni Morrison’s 1987 masterwork, Beloved: a runaway slave, caught in her effort to escape, cuts the throat of her baby daughter with a handsaw, determined to spare the girl the fate she herself has suffered as a slave. A similarly indelible act stands at the center of Ms. Morrison’s remarkable new novella, A Mercy, a small, plangent gem of a story that is, at once, a kind of prelude to Beloved and a variation on that earlier book’s exploration of the personal costs of slavery–a system that moves men and women and children around ‘like checkers’ and casts a looming shadow over both parental and romantic love.
Set some 200 years before Beloved, A Mercy conjures up the beautiful, untamed, lawless world that was America in the 17th century with the same sort of lyrical, verdant prose that distinguished that earlier novel. . . . Ms. Morrison has rediscovered an urgent, poetic voice that enables her to move back and forth with immediacy and ease between the worlds of history and myth, between ordinary daily life and the realm of fable. . . . A heartbreaking account of lost innocence and fractured dreams, [that] also stands, with Beloved, as one of Ms. Morrison’s most haunting works yet.”
–Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times
“Spellbinding . . . Dazzling . . . [A Mercy] stands alongside Beloved as a unique triumph in Morrison’s body of work. The lush poetry and amorphous structure of [the novel] reflect the story’s distant setting in the mist of America’s creation, when independence and the three-fifths compromise of the Constitution were still a century away. . . . Morrison, who has written so powerfully of catastrophe, cruelty and horror, here adds to that song of tragedy equally thrilling chords of desire and wonder, which in their own way are no less tragic. Where Beloved ends with the cathartic exhaustion of an exorcism, A Mercy concludes with an ambiguous kind of prayer, redolent with possibility and yearning but inspired by despair. This rich little masterpiece is a welding of poetry and history and psychological acuity that you must not miss.”
–Ron Charles, The Washington Post Book World
“Luminous and complex . . . In Beloved, Morrison told the story of Sethe, a woman who murdered her own child rather than see her sold into slavery. Early on in A Mercy, we watch a mother do the opposite–she puts her daughter Florens up for sale . . . It’s a less bloody moment, but in its way it’s no less chilling. A Mercy is that daughter’s tale. . . . Morrison is mooting the perversely hopeful possibility that slavery could have existed without racism or at least without racism as we know it. She lavishes some of her best writing in years on [A Mercy’s] pre-Revolutionary world . . . A Mercy shows us America in the moment before race madness ruined it–it is a wounded land, but the wound has not yet turned septic. . . . In A Mercy, Morrison is urging her younger self, the tortured soul who fashioned the infernal vision that is Beloved, to look even further–beyond the veil of pain and anger, however righteous, to hope. There was a time before the present misery, Morrison seems to be telling herself. And therefore, maybe, there will be a time after it.”
–Lev Grossman, Time
“Magnificent . . . As with all Morrison’s finest work, A Mercy compellingly combines immediacy and obliquity. Its evocation of pioneer existence in America surrounds you with sensuous intensity. . . . An attack by a bear is described with thrilling power. . . . Idioms have potent directness, too. . . . Rich knowledgeability about 17th-century America is put to telling effect. Voices speak to you as if you were there. . . . The book keeps you vividly aware of the vital human individuality that racism’s crude categorizations are brutally trying to iron out. . . . A stark story of the evils of possessiveness and the perils of dispossession emerges slantwise. Hints, suspicions, secrets, ambivalences, scarcely acknowledged motives and barely noticeable nuances serve as signposts to enormities and desperations: around slavery’s large-scale uprootings, Morrison spotlights individual instances of loss (orphans and outcasts are, as often in her fiction, much in evidence; compensatory alliances they form are warmly portrayed). A Mercy is so enthralling that you’ll want to read it more than once. On each occasion, it further reveals itself as a masterpiece of rewarding complexity.”
–Peter Kemp, The Sunday Times (London)
“In [A Mercy,] a mother chooses to give her daughter to a stranger, the man who will ‘own’ her, in hopes that she’ll find a better life. It is this act from which the book derives its title, but it is, of course, an ambivalent gesture whose tragic resonance will be slowly unveiled. . . . Morrison here is seeking some deeper truth about what she once called ‘the presence of the unfree within the heart of the democratic experiment.’ Some regard this novel as a kind of prelude to Beloved, but the author has even more provocative ideas at play. . . . In writing about the horror of slavery, she finds a kind of ragged hope.”
–Renée Graham, Boston Sunday Globe
“[A Mercy] examines slavery through the prism of power, not race. Morrison achieves this by setting A Mercy in 1680s America, when slavery was a color-blind, equal-opportunity state of misery, not yet the rigid, peculiar institution it would become. . . . Morrison doesn’t write traditional novels so much as create a hypnotic state of poetic intoxication. You don’t read A Mercy, you fall into a miasma of language and symbolism. [It] offers an original vision of America in its primeval state, where freedom was a rare commodity.”
–Deirdre Donahue, USA Today
“[Toni Morrison] bound[s] into literature with her new book as if it were the first time, with the spry energy of a