Top 10 books I read in 2012: A Mercy (#10)

A Mercy

A Mercy

TONI MORRISON
Knopf, 2008; 167 pages.

I have read a lot of Toni Morrison, I suppose, and I rank Beloved high among my all-time favorite novels. When I heard about A Mercy, though, I wasn’t planning on reading it. A novel set in the 1680s about slavery? Doesn’t really sound like a good time.

But I was really just experiencing a form of literary amnesia, because, come on. This is Toni Morrison. She knows what is UP.

Against my expectations, I was riveted from the first page and I think I read the whole novel in a night (at a mere 167 pages, this is an easy thing to do. The font size is also huge, at least in the paperback edition I read).

I think this book is fundamental Morrison, if I can say that–Morrison at her most Faulknerian, most bare, most essential. I wonder if I feel this way about the novel because of its historical setting. Here we are at the very beginning of America, in which it is still a nameless, lawless wilderness, where human nature exists at its most raw and unfiltered. In this way, Morrison’s language mimics the newness and rawness of the newborn American landscape and its hardy inhabitants. It is beautiful, spare prose and every line reads like a dream.

Accordingly, these characters are also beautiful and complex, layered in that kind of unfathomable way that Morrison is known for. She renders these early settlers, slave owners and slaves, husbands and wives, orphans and children, with a startling grace and honesty.

The slim novel is told in various short chapters, each one narrated by a different character. All of these people–Jacob, Florens, Lina, Sorrow, Rebekka–have distinctive voices. What I particularly loved is that there is no clear protagonist and no clear villain. Each character has his or her virtues and vices, just like us flesh-and-blood humans; no one stands out as purely good or purely evil. Everyone exists in darkness and light.

In short: A Mercy is brief and perfect, everything Morrison has ever promised us with her prose.

HONORABLE MENTIONS

11. The Stone Diaries, Carol Shields
12. As I Lay Dying, William Faulkner
13. Home, Marilynne Robinson
14. Angle of Repose, Wallace Stegner
15. The Little Prince, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
16. The Art of Fielding, Chad Harbach
17. Faces in the Water, Janet Frame
18. American Primitive, Mary Oliver
19. Bright Lights, Big City, Jay McInerney
20. Sophie’s Choice, William Styron
21. The Black Sheep, Honoré de Balzac
22. Jazz, Toni Morrison