Toni Morrison has made a ferociously beautiful new work, filled, in the words of French novelist-critic Julien Gracq, with "the sui generis scent of musty history" - the scent of the late 1600s, to be precise, on the raw North American continent. Except there's no mustiness here: Readers are plunged into the present-tense blood and sweat of it - slave trade, turf wars, religious sectarianism, sex, childbirth, food, drink, weather, farming, building, pestilence - and in Europe, class struggle and executions as entertainment. Morrison burns these particulars into us, through her astonishing story.
"A Mercy" is told in turns by six characters, the last of whom is completely unexpected, and provides a breathtaking closing. It commences with 16-year-old Portuguese slave Florens, her fervent words a curious mix of patois and lyricism:
"Don't be afraid. My telling can't hurt you in spite of what I have done and I promise to lie quietly in the dark - weeping perhaps or occasionally seeing the blood once more - but I will never again unfold my limbs to rise up and bare teeth. I explain."
Morrison risks a fair amount with this opening, which, while powerful, manifests in a vacuum. Readers may at first feel lost. Patience is rewarded, though, as pieces fall together and gain richer dimension with each narrator's telling. The year is 1690. Florens has set off from a farm, somewhere north of Virginia, to find a young blacksmith with whom she has fallen in love, and to try to obtain medicine from him for her mistress, who appears to be dying of a pox-like illness.
Subsequent pages move, with cinematic fluidity, backward and forward in time. Out of a golden fog steps Jacob Vaark, Dutch farmer turned trader, saddling up and racing his rented horse to the wilds of Maryland. In exchange for bailing out a repellent slave owner from debt, Vaark receives the child Florens. We begin to understand Florens' key memory - that of a mother who offered for barter her little girl in lieu of herself and the infant boy she still nursed. Vaark is a humane man who despises slave traffic but who has ambition and crisply understands the day's realities.
"From his own childhood [Jacob] knew. ... Even if bartered, given away, apprenticed, sold, swapped, seduced, tricked for food, labored for shelter or stolen, [waifs and whelps] were less doomed under adult control. [W]ithout an adult they were more likely to freeze to death ... float facedown in canals, or wash up on banks and shoals."
One by one, the people of Vaark's homestead speak. Wife Rebekka recalls the nightmare sea-crossing at 16 to marry Vaark (sight unseen, as currency in a business deal), their farm life, the deaths of their children. Lina, the Indian girl Vaark took on as a servant when her village was immolated by disease, has known enough, firsthand, of what "the Europes" (whites) wreak to counsel Florens: "We never shape the world. ... The world shapes us." Sorrow, a mixed-race girl literally washed ashore, whom everyone believes to be slow-witted, testifies, as does Scully, one of two indentured slaves. Each will be tried. Each will find or invent what is necessary.
I won't reveal more, because the plot takes surprising twists, but note that as in her prior, unforgettable novel "Beloved," mothering - its lack, its desperate inventions - proves a central meditation in Morrison's vision: "Mother hunger - to be one or have one - both [Lina and Florens] were reeling from that longing which ... remained alive, traveling the bone."
The struggle for life is animal-fierce, relentless unto death, and for women and children, twice as treacherous. There is some light, some love, but woeful little help for pain. What flood a reader's senses are Morrison's women and men: black, red and white; slaves, indentured and free - deeply inhabited, complexly human, furiously willful, conveyed through whip-crack language. Morrison may imbue characters with a more modern habit of intellection than her setting warrants, but that's quibbling. "A Mercy" accomplishes art's miracle: Swept head-on into the brutal specificity of a place and era, we are forced to own it. Her vision bears down, excusing no one. Hear, smell, see and feel it, declares Morrison's account. Here is how we carried on, and what we carry within.
This review first appeared in The San Francisco Chronicle.