"Tar Baby," audacious and hypnotic, is masterful in its mingling of tones--of longing and alarm, of urbanity and a primal, mythic force in which the landscape itself becomes animate with a wild, dark complicity in the fates of the people whose drama unfolds.
Valerian and Margaret are oblivious to the ways in which they marginalize Sydney and Ondine, and take them for granted. Jadine is caught between two cultures, enjoying independence in Paris but still struggling to make it in the world on her own, especially as a Black woman. She finds Son, the sailor, simultaneously loathsome and attractive. As often happens when too many people are thrown together for two long, tensions begin to rise, tempers flare, and family secrets are maliciously revealed. Christmas turns out much differently than anyone expected. Each character must try to heal themselves and, if they choose, their relationships with the others.
Published in 1981, Tar Baby was Toni Morrison’s fourth novel and explores themes of feminism and race. The first two-thirds of the novel felt fresh and unique, perhaps because it was set in the Caribbean and was the first of Morrison’s novels where white and black people shared the stage. The last third is set elsewhere and focused primarily on only two characters. My interest flagged a bit at that point as I kept wondering what had happened to the others. My questions were answered in the denouement, and I was ultimately satisfied with this book but enjoyed it less than some of Morrison’s earlier books.
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.
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.
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?
The retired confectioner Valerian Street uses the security of his position of wealth to play with the lives of his working-class wife Margaret, his black servants Sydney and Ondine, and various islanders whose real names he doesn't even bother to learn. There is also the superb Jadine, an orphaned niece of Sydney and Ondine whom Valerian has quixotically sponsored through an expensive education, now a model with the fashion worlds of Paris and New York opening up before her. And now there is a random black seaman, Son, who turns up at the house to steal food and is invited in by Valerian just to stir things up and see what will happen, like the rabbit in the traditional story Morrison refers to in the title.
Of course, Son falls heavily for Jadine, who has never seen anything quite like him and is simultaneously fascinated and disgusted. Son's past life in the South enters into things, as does the real background to Valerian's difficult relationship with his own (offstage) son, and there is a constant background rumbling from the ghosts of the island, obviously all tied in with the history of slavery (it's not an accident that Valerian is a confectioner) and the oppression of women.
I enjoyed this, there are some fantastic passages of description and dialogue, but I didn't get as much out of it as Song of Solomon, it felt a bit too much like routine reworking of fairly predictable themes. Perhaps Morrison didn't do quite as much as she might have to capture the special Caribbean character of the setting: it mostly just felt like an exotic showcase for mainland American stories.
The irony is that while I would go on to become a devoted reader of Toni Morrison, I didn't like Tar Baby when I first read it. This time I liked it a lot better. The story focuses on a group of characters on a Caribbean island. Son, a Black sailor who jumps ship and swims to the island, ends up hiding in the estate of Valerian Street. Valerian, a retired candy manufacturer, has made his island home his permanent residence where he enjoys cultivating plants in his greenhouse despite the pleas of his wife Margaret to return home to Philadelphia. Margaret is a former beauty queen who we learn is mentally unstable and suffers from the restrictions on her life as a woman.
Working at the estate are a married Black couple, Syndey, the butler, and Ondine, the cook. Despite their servile position they each have a familiar relationship with their employers and are willing the share their opinions. Sydney and Ondine's niece, Jadine, who they act as surrogate parents for after she was orphaned. Jadine is highly sophisticated and cosmopolitan after education at the Sorbonne, sponsored by Valerian, and working as a fashion model.
The discovery of Son hiding in Margaret's closet begins a series of events that reveal the deep-seeded tensions among the residents of the estate. Valerian makes a great show of treating Son as a guest while Margaret, Sydney, and Ondine disapprove. Eventually, Son and Jadine, both attractive, young people in their 20s flee and begin a romantic relationship. They first go to New York City where Jadine thrives but Son feels stifled. Then they go to Son's home town of Eloe, Florida where Son feels more at home being close to nature with his people, but Jadine is overwhelmed by the strict, traditional expectations for women.
The book covers many themes related to women and race. All the women in this story find themselves restricted in different ways. The relations of the Streets to Sydney, Ondine, and Jadine appear cordial at first but are revealed to built on white supremacy. Internalized racism is also revealed as first Sydney and Ondine, and later Jadine, judge Son for his natural and "wild" ways. And there is the intersection of reality with African American folklore, particularly in the story of the wild horsemen of the island, descended from the first enslaved people brought there. This is also the first book of Morrison's set in a contemporary rather than historical period which makes it stand out among her works.