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, p. 1.
In I682, in the area that would become the state of Virginia, an idealistic Anglo-Dutch settler named Jacob Vaark finds it difficult to make a living from farming. He goes to collect a debt from a wealthy Portuguese settler and is persuaded against his better judgement to accept a slave in lieu of the money.
At the prompting of the child’s mother, Jacob takes little Florens (loose change) home. The child is too young to be very useful on the farm and has a liking for fine things, especially pretty shoes, but Jacob thinks that having her around may cheer up his wife, Rebecca, who has lost all her own children. Although Rebecca is a mail-order bride from England, the marriage has turned out to be a happy one. Jacob’s household also consists of Lina, their Native American servant, and another foundling named Sorrow, the daughter of a ship’s captain, who is so traumatised by the shipwreck that killed everyone she knew that she appears to be simple-minded.
Jacob’s last significant act in the novel is to invest in the sugar trade. As Tim Adams observes in his review, this is appropriate because it symbolises “The moment when the engine of capitalism in the New World would be slave labour in distant lands”. He makes his money, but he dies of smallpox before he can occupy the luxurious house he has been using it to build.
This is the point at which the narrative of A Mercy opens. Florens, now aged sixteen, is despatched in search of help for her mistress who has also fallen sick with small pox. Without male protection the women left at the farm are profoundly vulnerable. If Rebecca dies, Florens, Lina and Sorrow will have no legal status. Florens sets out in search of a free black man who has worked for the family before as a blacksmith and shown skill with healing sick people. It’s a dangerous journey, but she is sent partly because the other women know that she’s in love with the blacksmith and believe that her passion will make her determined to reach him.
Reviewers have called A Mercy a prequel to Morrison’s most famous novel Beloved, but I think it can be read as a prequel to all her earlier novels because it takes a step back and looks at the historical context that has produced all of her work. It is set at a period when North America was in a state of flux, a dangerous time, but also a time of possibility. Through the microcosm of one family, A Mercy traces how the possibilities become fixed in certain ways. It’s a parable about how America got to where it is. In particular, it’s an indictment of the toxic mixture of capitalism and certain kinds of religious expression that have shaped American history. I’m sure it’s no coincidence that the story is set in Virginia, a colony founded by a company given a charter by James I to exploit the resources of the area. And in the most frightening part of the book, Florens finds herself in a puritan settlement and stays at the house of a widow who’s daughter is under suspicion of witchcraft.
A Mercy is also a book about trauma and how historical trauma has shaped relationships between women. The character of Sorrow embodies the trauma that all the women have experienced – Rebecca, in the horrors of poverty in England, Lina in the death of her entire tribe from the smallpox bought by settlers, and Florens by her belief that her mother gave her away so that she could keep her baby son. Morrison seems to be unravelling some of the structures that have prevented women from supporting one another.
To be female in this place is to be an open wound that cannot heal. Even if scars form, the festering is ever below.
Morrison gives the last shattering chapter to Florens’s mother, allowing her to explain why she asked Jacob to take her daughter.
A Mercy is Toni Morrison’s ninth book and reviewers seem divided as to how good it is. But when you’re talking about a writer of Morrison’s level and the question is whether a book is ‘brilliant’ or only ‘very good’, the conversation does seem a little silly to me. What’s incredible about the book is the amount of history that she packs into 165 pages and how elegantly she manages the material. I don’t think it’s her best book, but it’s one of her most poetic, one to read, savour, think about, and read again.
Interesting review from Anita Sethi here.