Tar Baby

by Toni Morrison

Paperback, 1983


Checked out



Signet (1983), Mass Market Paperback, 272 pages


On a tropical island paradise, six people interact with each other in all the tender or hateful ways that human beings are capable of. Rich and poor, black and white, young and old, male and female, each has something to teach the others -- and each has something to learn.

User reviews

LibraryThing member dchaikin
30. Tar Baby (Audio) by Toni Morrison, read by Desiree Coleman (1981, 11:26, ~320 pages in paperback, listened May 8-20)

This came after [Song of Solomon] and before [Beloved], possibly Morrison's best works, both very ambitious, but in different kinds of ways. [Beloved] took a lot more out of Morrison than any of her previous much more angry books. This one is much more like [Song of Solomon], although not quite as good. But, don't shy away. It's an ambitious work, complicated, angry, unsettling without ever letting that lead you away from the text.

It's not what Morrison says that is unsettling, I mean it's not the stories and their odd and less than appetizing outcomes. Her stories are fun, and the way she mixes in possibly magical characters and actually magical living landscapes just make things a lot more fun. What is unsettling is the meaning behind the stories. It's never clear what she means, but the more you think about the story the more bothered you are likely to be by it. And her endings, they just leave you thinking and thinking.

Anyway, although this took me a bit to get into, I enjoyed it and it's wandering into black history, culture clashes and a very curious relationship between a pair of black servants, who are married, and their white employers who happen to own practically the entire (living) island are staying on. Things get a little more interesting when an black island stowaway is found in a bedroom closet.
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LibraryThing member kylekatz
Tar Baby was really good, but somehow less satisfying to me than most other Toni Morrison books. It seems to be almost contemporary, unlike all the others I've read so far which were mostly historical, with only Love having a part in the 1990s. So it takes place in the seventies in Dominique and Manhattan and in rural Alabama. Mostly in Dominique in the Caribbean. It involves a rich white couple, their servants and a prowler. The prowler is caught and becomes enmeshed in the community and highlights the contrast between the rich and poor somehow by his very existence, which makes it very uncomfortable since they all usually ignore all the messy implications of their situation. The question of respecting the servants as human beings or even thinking of them as human beings is brought forward. Also the veneer of smooth perfection the rich people usually maintain around their affairs is broken and the extremely messy truth creeps out about just how not perfect they really are. This exposure almost breaks them, may in fact have broken them, as the end leaves many questions unanswered. The writing is beautiful, but felt more uneven than some of her books. I missed a formal structure, like dividing it into clear parts or something. It seemed like that would have helped. But perhaps the nature of the tar baby is that messy, and should not be constrained in a formal way?… (more)
LibraryThing member lindseyrivers
Although I don't always understand Toni Morrison, or some of the struggles her characters undergo I always love reading her. Her language is poetic, her stories interesting and I always end up invested in the characters. This book was no different. The ending went totally over my head but I would still re-read this book for the rest of the story. What I did understand, especially the plight to understand and deal with racial boundaries by all the characters, is poignant and will resonate with me for a long time.… (more)
LibraryThing member blondestranger
Many times throughout the book I thought "Who are these people?!!" The characters were so bizarre and did appalling things. The book, in a very strange and incoherent fashion, was portraying the struggle within black culture to choose progress (education and betterment) or tradition (a life of servitude and freedom from the "white man"). There was an unspoken caste system, self-sacrifice and selfishness, violence and many layers of ignorance and prejudice. The book does have some controversial social suggestions about black and white integration, but it never fully completes any of them. The ultimate choice (between progress and tradition) is left unresolved. Overall, I can't say I would recommend this book to anyone.… (more)
LibraryThing member g0ldenboy
This is the fifth of six large works assigned to my college's Postmodern American Literature course. Toni Morrison and I got off on the wrong foot; Tar Baby crawls.
LibraryThing member ThatsFresh
I love Toni Morrison. I think her writing is like candy, and when you read a poetic sentence or moving chapter, you can just feel it. So when I picked up this book, I actually decided to put it down, to pick up the audio book. It’s narrated by Lynne Thigpen and makes the book all the better.
I had never listened to an audio book before, so I wasn’t used to having the book read to me, and at the beginning found myself spacing out. But in no time, I learned to love it found listening to it was more convenient that reading the actual book (sometimes). I would often lay on the couch and listen to the book through my computer and would find Lynne’s voice so soothing that I’d be forced to take a nap after thirty minutes (not that that’s a bad thing).
For those of you who don’t know, the book is about a rich, older white couple living on a tropical island in the Caribbean with their longtime servants. The servant’s daughter, a successful model in Paris, comes to spend the winter at the mansion and is included in the family’s drama. The white couple is growing apart in their older-adult age and the wife is left to obsess about their son coming home for Christmas.
A strong African-American man, who we know nothing about, appears at the mansion one day. Everyone but the white homeowner immediately loathes him. He ends up staying at the house, only to cause drama, and be part of everyone else’s.
The story weaves love, race, class, identity, family, hate and obsession all into one.
Toni Morrison does a beautiful job, once again.
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LibraryThing member noonwitch
I had to read this in college. It was really the first book I read in the "black literature" genre. I liked the two stories, and the balance of them-Jadine's story, and Margeret's story.
LibraryThing member LDVoorberg
Not a good audiobook to listen to in the car, unless you can do it in one or two long stretches. I don't think I got the full impact of this novel, because both the beginning and the ending seemed rather splintered to me. I liked the middle well enough, when everyone was on the island and I'd figured out who they all were. That part was good -- and the events leading up to and away from Christmas dinner. But then it got lost again for me.

The voice of the reader was rather soft, too, which was awkward. She did accents well, but the cadence of her voice was too varied.
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LibraryThing member KamGeb
Afrocentric book with fairy tale like quality. About white/black and female/male relationships. It's about 6 people; 1 white couple and a black couple that work for them and 2 other blacks on a plantation in Port of France. Interesting especially the fairy tale like qualities. Might read again.
LibraryThing member addunn3
Stranger appears on a Caribbean island in a household of a rich, retired husband, wife and black support staff, and the beautiful niece of one of them. Seemed like a lot of writing for not accomplishing much.
LibraryThing member AliceAnna
Kind of a Six Degrees of Separation, but in reverse. The same concept of a young man of mysterious origins coming into the lives of an affluent family and changing everything. But Son changes things for blacks as well as whites. This young man is thought to be a thief and a potential rapist, but he turns out to be a good man. Neither he nor Jade really know themselves though, and through this lack of self-knowledge, they grow apart. Although the ending left their fates unknown, I somehow felt that they would once again find each other. What then, I don't know. The theme of black and white was complicated by the "yalla" Jade. She could enter either world, but in the end, she had no idea exactly where it was that she belonged. Son had no better idea upon realization that Eloe was a dream of things past. He, too, soon discovered that he didn't belong in that world. I suppose that's why I felt they would find each other again. They may not have belonged in the worlds they created for themselves, but they seemed to belong in the world they created together. A lovely book. I truly enjoy Toni Morrison's colorful, full-bodied writing.… (more)
LibraryThing member chrisblocker
Let me start by saying, that's not at all what I expected. Yes, the quality of the writing was all Toni Morrison, but of the six novels of hers I have now read, this had the most contemporary of settings. I'd hate to say I had typecast Morrison as a historical novelist, but... I typecast Morrison as a historical novelist. So it took me a little while to get into the rhythm of Tar Baby. Even though I'd read the blurb and knew the setting was at least semi-contemporary, I couldn't shake the mention of hippies and Kotex in the opening chapter. My mind wanted to take this familiar tone of Morrison and plant it in more familiar ground.

Somewhere along the way, much too late I admit, it finally clicked—the rhythm felt right—and I became engaged in the story. I loved the characters and how they were placed on the stage. Valerian in the role of the powerful man who's indifferent to the wants of others, toying with hearts and relationships based on whims. Jadine, the young light-skinned black woman who is seen as a sellout by others—she doesn't act the way she “ought to”—but also is one of the few characters who seems to know who she is. The servants, Ondine and Sydney, Jadine's aunt and uncle, who walk a line between maintaining their strong voices and keeping their jobs. Margaret, Valerian's wife, a white woman who believes herself to be a friend of her black servants merely because she's earned the right by being “civil” with them. And Son, the stranger who arrives and throws all their pretentious role playing into disarray. He is a resilient, strong-willed man who may give one fuck, but never two.

Once it clicked, I enjoyed the story and the direction it was going. Everyone had something they wanted, yet it was often their own self in the way. The longer everyone struggled with themselves, the more the tension with one another built. Midway, the atmosphere is quite explosive. And I most certainly loved the language, a talent Morrison always has on display even when the characters or story don't follow. Morrison is a wordsmith, a weaver of phrases, a poet masquerading as a novelist.

Something about the conclusion just didn't work for me, though. Specifically, I'm talking about from the point of Jadine's return (Chapter 10) and on. I found my interests waning. Personally, I don't think it's where I would've taken the story. And somehow, to me, it didn't feel right. I won't go into detail, but I'll just say that despite the wonderfully written prose, I was underwhelmed with the direction of the story in these last thirty pages.

While I've read just over half of Morrison's complete catalog of novels, I stand by my previous assessment of the quality of Morrison's novels pre-Nobel and post-Nobel. While Tar Baby has been my least favorite of the pre-Nobel works, I do like it considerably better than those I've read published after 1993. I'm sure there will be an exception eventually and I'll be outed as the not-so-know-it-all pretentious literary snob that I am, but so far I really do like her earlier works better. With that in mind, Song of Solomon is next, and with that I'll have completed every novel Morrison published in her first twenty years of writing.

Postscript: What was with the phrase “blue-if-it's-a-boy blue”? Why was it repeated so many times? It grew tiresome and I didn't see that it added any significant meaning to the story to be repeated as often as it was. Anyone have any insight on this phrase or know if it holds extra significance I might have missed?
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LibraryThing member pinkcrayon99
To me this book really is about *class* in the African-American community which is a topic that is missed by many that read it. The interaction of the characters of this book is amazing. Great read!


Original publication date


Physical description

272 p.; 6.8 inches


0451166396 / 9780451166395
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