Picks and Pans Review: Beloved

updated 11/30/1987 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/30/1987 AT 01:00 AM EST

by Toni Morrison

In her fifth novel Morrison tells a startling tale about a ghost, a community and a woman. Sethe is a fugitive slave and a young mother who has fled from Kentucky and arrives in Ohio in 1855, where her erstwhile owner tracks her down. In a frenzy of fear that her four children will be condemned to slavery, Sethe cuts the throat of a baby daughter. The murder has two consequences: Sethe is ostracized by her community (a society of freed and fugitive blacks stunned by the infanticide), and her home becomes haunted by what she believes to be the spirit of her dead baby. The novel actually begins in 1873, long after Sethe has killed her child. Slavery is over, and Sethe has become a woman of "iron eyes and backbone" who strives to "keep the past at bay." Still an outcast, she lives with her mother-in-law—a bone-weary old woman named Baby Suggs, who retires to her deathbed to meditate—her daughter Denver and the baby's ghost. For Sethe, life changes the day that Beloved, with her "new skin, lineless and smooth" suddenly appears from nowhere: "A fully dressed woman walked out of the water. She barely gained the dry bank of the stream before she sat down and leaned against a mulberry tree. All day and all night she sat there, her head resting on a trunk in a position abandoned enough to crack the brim in her straw hat." Morrison never explains Beloved's identity. She is greeted first by Sethe's fear and doubt but eventually becomes accepted and nurtured as Sethe's lost child, a young woman who grows ominously stronger as Sethe grows weaker. With Beloved, Morrison, the author of 1981's Tar Baby, has written a brutally powerful, mesmerizing story about the inescapable, excruciating legacy of slavery. Behind each new event and each new character lies another event and another story until finally the reader meets a community of proud, daring people inextricably bound by culture and experience. Her prose overwhelms and agitates, and she ends with the warning that "this is not a story to pass on." Maybe not. Just stop, read it and tremble. (Knopf, $18.95)

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