Picks and Pans Review: A Mercy

updated 11/17/2008 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/17/2008 AT 01:00 AM EST

by Toni Morrison

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A slim, somber fever dream of a novel, Nobel laureate Morrison's first new fiction in half a decade belies the tenderness of its title. Set in the 1680s, her tale unfolds in the harsh northern climes of an emergent America. Here, on Anglo-Dutch trader Jacob Vaark's isolated homestead, Vaark's mail-order wife and three female slaves (Native American Lina; Sorrow, a mixed-race castaway; and Florens, given up by her mother to pay her master's debt to Vaark) struggle against great hardships while forming shifting alliances that serve as the novel's sole flickers of redemption.

The prismatic effect of the four women's voices as they revisit the same events from different angles—particularly the disquieting arrival of a free African blacksmith on the scene—lends a shimmering, even beautiful, overlay to the book's painstakingly detailed themes of arbitrary death, disease and obsessive love. There is precious little salvation in this searing, sometimes brutal evocation of our nation's genesis. But like 1987's Beloved, to which it serves as a kind of thematic prequel, Mercy abounds in near-biblical power and grace.

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