In exchange for a bad debt, an Anglo-Dutch trader takes on Florens, a young slave girl, who feels abandoned by her slave mother and who searches for love--first from an older servant woman at her master's new home, and then from a handsome free blacksmith, in a novel set in late seventeenth-century America.
Toni Morrison narrates her own novel in a unique and captivating style, giving her words weight with poetic tempo and pauses that lend an understated drama to the story, making it compelling and a bit hypnotic.
Characters are easy to like, plot elements keep the action moving without being over-dramatic, and thematic development is masterful. You will walk away from this book knowing how slavery demeans everyone and makes all -- whether slave or not -- utterly dependent on each other. This interdependence may have the surface appearance of a family unit, but in a crisis, that pretense shatters to the detriment of all.
There is every reason to recommend this novel, not the least of which is the narration, but also the beauty of restrained prose, and the care given to its historicity.
As a fellow LibraryThing reviewer pointed out, you can't read Morrison with a lazy eye and mind. Her novels take some work to decipher, and yet they're not so obscure that the reader gives up almost immediately. Just the opposite: I find that I want to work at understanding her characters and their circumstances.
A Mercy is a beautiful novel. The tragic events don't arrive as a sudden shock, but creep up on the reader gradually. The most powerful voice, the one that holds the most important answer, is left for last. And the ones we thought would stay, fade away into nothingness. Best of all, the story doesn't end, doesn't offer a quick resolution or a drastic finale. Life just seems to go on, only more scattered once the nucleus holding these characters together disappears.
A Mercy has a quietness about it - as if each character is whispering a secret in my ear. But the message was strong, powerful and riveting. I haven't read a book quite like it before.
The story centers on the trade of Florens, a literate slave girl who comes to the home of Jacob Vaark. Florens' mother insisted the girl be traded away from her, and as Florens settles into her new home, she ponders why her mother would be so willing to give her up. While at Jacob's home, Florens falls under the care of Lina, a Native American woman who tends to the farm and household. Also at the home are Sorrow, a supposedly dim-witted slave, and Rebekka, Jacob's wife.
When Jacob dies unexpectedly, the entire structure of the home unravels, thread by thread. Rebekka is stricken with illness, Florens is dispatched to find help from her lover, Sorrow gives birth to a baby, and Lina can't function out of worry about Florens. Chapters are divided among the characters, adding new perspectives to the tragedy. The most telling chapter was the last, when Florens' mother told her side of the story.
The plot doesn't move really, but as the story weaves in and out among the characters, you get a hard look at the effects of slavery in 1680's America. The moral of the story, though whispered, was still loud and clear: Slavery, in all forms, destroys lives.
As the characters are introduced, the story unfolds. It is the 1690s in America, and Jacob Vaark reluctantly agreed to take Florens as a partial payment from a debtor. Back at home, Jacob already has a full plate. His wife, Rebekka, has recently lost her only surviving child. Lina, a Native American woman whose tribe was annihilated by small pox, is their dedicated servant. Another girl, the strange Sorrow who grew up on a ship, was taken in by the Vaark’s as well. In addition, two slaves from a nearby farm also help the family and their servants.
To me the most compelling aspect of this novel was the unobtrusiveness of the history. Morrison is able to weave history into the story in such a way that the reader must decipher it to coax its full implications and its legacy. History is handed to you on a plate that you must dissect with your hands rather than being spoon-fed. While she imparts the inherent contradictions and suffering that comes with racism pushed to its most evil conclusions, aspects of love, belonging, and self-worth are revealed. There is no over-explaining here. As the novel progresses, each character finds their own mercy in their own way. Whether this mercy is right or wrong is open to interpretation and largely based on historicism.
"A Mercy" is a short book - about 170 compact pages, and I decided to stay the course. I'm glad I did. Ms. Morrison's language shifts from an elliptical stream-of-consciousness exercise in the first chapter to an intelligible and poetic narrative that sweeps the reader into the beauty and tragedy of 17th century America before it was America. Her ensuing prose combines a mystical, dreamlike quality with a razor sharp conveyance of nature's immediacy. Morrison leads her reader into a world that is at once mythic and yet acutely real, a literary version of Bierstadt's wilderness paintings.
The quest for belonging, the desire to forge a circle of interconnection between human and human, is a central theme of the book. Almost everyone is an orphan of some sort. Jacob Vaark has scraped his fortune together in the New World by employing the energy and wiles that enabled him to survive as a solitary street urchin in Europe. His wife, Rebekka, was shipped across the ocean to Jacob, sight unseen, by her father, who was only too glad to reduce his familial burden by one hungry 16-year old. Lina, Rebekka's Native American housemaid and farmworker, has lost her entire village to smallpox. Sorrow, an African orphan, has been taken in by Vaark after her rescue, half drowned, from a nearby river estuary. Florens, the main character of the story, has found her way into Vaark's household by default, having been accepted by Vaarck as "payment" for a Virginia slave trader's debt, but only after Floren's mother (the originally intended "payment") begged him to do so.
The motherless, disconnected state of Morrison's characters is made more poignant by the boundless wilderness that they inhabit. Breathtaking, seemingly endless, impersonal in its beauty and in its cruelty, the New World itself is a character in the book. Awe inspiring and yet merciless, nature has a leveling effect on social stratification when survival is at stake. Smallpox, malnutrition, an unfortunate fall that breaks a leg -- such misfortunes are no respecter of class or legal status. People live or die as a group, and the women on Vaark's failing farm form a friendship of sorts as they realize that coordinated effort from dawn until dusk is necessary in order to prevent nature from reclaiming their fragile foothold on the land.
Lina, Sorrow, and Florens, however, are fully aware that their cobbled-together coexistence is no substitute for social equality and the right to seek and maintain the bonds of family, a goal that each of them hungers for in her own way. The story has twists and turns that I won't reveal here, but it is safe to say that slavery's devastating effects on the human psyche run through the book and Vaarck's wilderness like a tainted river. The hopelessness and humiliation that accompany Floren's loss of control over her own body and destiny are tragedies that are compounded by her unconscious internalization of slavery itself. A free black ironworker rebuffs Florens' advances with a stinging rebuke: he wants her to go because she is a slave. When Florens responds, as if slapped, "What is your meaning? I am a slave because Sir trades for me," he replies: "No. You have become one. . . Your head is empty and your body is wild . . . Own yourself, woman, and leave us be."
Each side of the ornate iron gate that Jacob has commissioned the black journeyman to fashion for Jacob's newly completed mansion is topped by the image of a writhing serpent. When closed, the two serpent heads merge to form a flower blossom. Is nature the serpent that must be tamed in Vaarck's garden, or is man the serpent in the New World's Eden? Morrison invites you ponder this and other questions as you immerse yourself in this satisfying 2-night read.
"In "A Mercy" there are people who have known what it's like not to be loved and those who have known love. There is Sir, Rebekkah, Lina, Florens, Sorrow, Twin, the freed blacksmith and more characters. Each character's life is a memorable story, a book in itself.
In the Seventeenth century religion was around every corner: Baptists, Anabaptists, Separatists, Presbyterians, Catholics and Protestants and also the secret, foreign gods of the slaves. With all this religion, there is also deep hatred, feelings of superiority and greed. These feelings lead to evil bartering for flesh. Other time these other emotions lead to a clinging together becoming as one like in a marriage until each person gains the strength to survive in this new world.
Jacob Vaark is one of the few men who hates the selling of human flesh like chattel. His presence gave me a sense of safe relief. His death made me sad. Born a orphan he sympathized with other needy human beings no matter the color. Perhaps, it's his lack of a real home that leads him to build more than one home for himself looking for a spiritual security. Looking for a place where he can give and receive love.
I favored some characters in "A Mercy." I favored Sorrow. Her life is the one I will remember. Sorrow changes her name after the birth of a daughter. She changes her name to Complete. Wow! That was so powerful for me. I can't tell the story here without spoiling it. At the end of the book I felt complete. I had also witnessed A Mercy.
I feel honored just trying to write a review of Toni Morrison's book. The book, the plot is swollen with wisdom and beauty. I remember the words "motherlove." Oh, how can I stop sharing this book? With Toni Morrison book, there isn't an ending. There is just a resting place. Her book "A Mercy" is as refreshing as water from a rolling brook in the mountains. Thank you Toni Morrison. May you live a long life always with a pen and paper nearby.
I agree with what reviewer – Gwendolyn Dawson says on her blog Literary License: ‘A Mercy is stylistically and structurally interesting but the overall effect is a bit academic and sterile. Critics will like this book but readers may be disappointed by its inscrutability, which sometimes appears to elevate form over function.’
This novel is written through different voices and each chapter, layered, without warning or notation switches between first and third-person perspectives and at times it was difficult to discern which voice was speaking. Jacob and Rebekka, the sadly childless European landowners; Florens, who was sold away from her mother to repay a debt; Lina is the sole survivor of a small-pox outbreak in her village and Sorrow a poor black girl who has been raped and abused and daughter of a sea captain killed in a storm off the coast of the Carolinas; Willard and Scully, the white indentured servants; and the blacksmith, a nameless free African who captured Florens' heart. I give Morrison credit for her ability to craft these different personalities and weave them together is extraordinary.
Overall, I wouldn't say I enjoyed this book, but I would definitely say it is a uniquely told story with themes of racism, slavery, adventure, religion, and witchcraft. I found it hard to follow, my mind wondering to all of the other books on my shelf I would rather be reading. But her novels take some work to decipher, and I didn’t want to give up so easily. I found that I wanted to work at understanding her characters and their circumstances. It's the kind of novel that needs to be re-read and reflected upon, preferably a book discussion would help as well.
The story opens up with a "confession" from the protagonist, a 16-year-old slave girl named Florens, with hands of a slave and feet of a Portuguese lady. She warns of a bloody story to be told as the reader muddles through what is admittedly a difficult narrator to follow. But Florens's present-tense stream of consciousness is easily overcome by the end of the story, as Morrison weaves in between voices and narratives: from Jacob, the hesitant master, to his religiously apathetic wife, as well as the servants, including Lina, rescued by the Puritans and then given to Jacob, and Sorrow, a arguably delusional character whose name matches how others perceive her. Each character is fully developed with their own heart-breaking story to tell on top of Florens's own story of abandonment, which is a highly resonant theme for discussion throughout the novel.
The most amazing part of Morrison's 167-page endeavor is perhaps its length—under 200 pages, a quick read compared to her previous books. Yet despite this, Morrison manages to create yet another masterpiece of epic proportions: her characters are richly drawn, her story is skillfully sewn together a la Faulkner, and most importantly, Morrison infuses the novel with a type of emotion rarely seen in books, past or present. One can't help but quote passages, think, and cry, at not only its depth, but simply because it is beautiful and poetic.
Morrison lives up to her expectations as a Nobel Prize winner, even though some might be lost in the multiples narratives as well as the constant change in voices. Yet in the hands of Toni Morrison, these traits become the treasure of her work. A Mercy is simply amazing, simply epic—just as we know Morrison to be—and simply must be read; it is one of the best novels, if not the best novel, of 2008.
Jacob is a trader who takes a small slave girl- Florens - in partial payment for a debt. The mother of the child begs him to take the girl, not herself. It is this act that has consequences for all the lives that are intertwined with that of Florens'. Florens joins Jacob's wife Rebekka, Lina, a servant and Sorrow, an indentured young woman, at their hardscrabble farm. Scully and Willard are also hoping to buy their freedom. Florens yearns for the blacksmith, an African who has never been enslaved.
Life at this time in history is defined and described from the viewpoint of each of these characters. Each character is enslaved to something in this new world - an owner, religion, wealth, desire and memory. The most poignant voice is that of Floren's mother. The last chapter of the book belongs to her and it ends on a powerful note.
Toni Morrison has a gift with words. Although it is tempting to read straight through to the end, I always take the time to savour and enjoy the language she uses.
..."especially here where tobacco and slaves were married, each currency clutching it's partner's elbow".
Toni Morrison is an amazingly gifted writer, having won both a Nobel and Pulitzer Prize. If you haven't experienced her yet, I encourage you to pick up any of her books.
A Mercy is Toni Morrison’s ninth novel and could well be the prelude to Beloved, the Nobel Prize-winning author’s 1987 novel that dealt with the brutality of slavery most heart wrenchingly in the form of a mother who cut her daughter’s throat rather than see her live as a slave. A Mercy also has at its heart the “abandonment” of a girl by her mother.
On the surface it is the story of Jacob, a Dutch trader in the 17th century with a small piece of land and the four women who make up his “family”—his wife Rebekka, their servant Lina whose tribe was destroyed by small pox, Sorrow, a young woman who spent her life on the water and seems not all here; and Florens, the young slave girl accepted as part payment for a bad debt.
And herein lies the undercurrent of the story. Florens feels betrayed by her mother who begged her master to sell Florens rather than herself and everything she does is based on that feeling of abandonment. It is a story of race and gender, loss and betrayal, broken hearts and unrealized dreams. The storytelling is masterful and it crescendos with the mother’s voice, with her haunting account of the day she let her daughter go. This is one of Toni Morrison's best. A sure bet and a must read.
This story takes place in the 1680's, in the wilds of a new America. Jacob is a man who disapproves of the slave trade yet makes concessions toward it. His wife Rebekka is a mail order bride from England, yet the two have a happy marriage. On their land they do have 'help' in the form of Lina, a Native-American, Sorrow, an orphan from the sea, and Florens, a slave girl given up by her mother whom Jacob takes as payment for a debt. Together they try to build a home for themselves, fighting against a harsh climate, disease, and inside and outside forces that seem bent on destruction.
With themes of racism, slavery, adventure, religion, and witchcraft, A Mercy is another brilliant work by a very brilliant author.
2008, 167 pages
My, oh my, oh my. Morrison packed so much richness into this short novel. The richness is centered around a tiny bit of storyline, in which Florens, a slave girl, is sent on an errand to get help for her seriously ill mistress. But there's so much more in the stories of each character, told in their own voices: Jacob and Rebekka, the sadly childless European landowners; Florens, who was sold away from her mother to repay a debt; Lina and Sorrow, women who came to the farm via slave ship; Willard and Scully, the white indentured servants; and the blacksmith, a nameless free African who captured Florens' heart. I found myself enveloped in Morrison's prose, savoring every word, as with this description of an Atlantic crossing: Women of and for men, in those few moments they were neither. And when finally the lamp died, swaddling them in black, for a long time, oblivious to the footsteps above them, or the lowing behind them, they did not stir. For them, unable to see the sky, time became simply the running sea, unmarked, eternal, and of no matter. (p. 85)
This is a wonderful, moving, haunting book. Highly recommended.