My first encounter with this beautiful novel was when I was studying at the University of Limerick in 2014. I took a class called ‘Contemporary Women’s Writing’, where we read different novels – Possession by A S Byatt, The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, a collection of short stories by Angela Carter, and this novel. I remember breezing through the book in a week as soon as I got truly into it, reading like my life depended on it. It probably helps that I was bedridden while reading it, suffering from a terrible bout of the flu, but I still enjoyed it immensely.
The story is a twisted form of a three-generation novel, taking place in the 19th century, at a time when slavery was still a very important issue in the United States. Baby, Sethe and Denver are black women; the first two suffered as slaves for a good portion of their lives before earning their freedom (in Baby’s case) or running away (in Sethe’s case). Sethe was ‘married’ to one of Baby’s sons, a man who has since disappeared and rumored to have gone mad. Living in Ohio, a state where they are free, Sethe’s past soon catches up to her, both in the form of a man who she knew when she was a slave (who also happens to be one of Baby’s sons), and in the form of a ghostly presence that haunts her current stead.
If you know the story of Margaret Garner, a slave woman who was the inspiration for the painting The Modern Medea by Thomas Satterwhite Noble, then you know Sethe’s story. Under the law, Sethe was free, but her children were not, and so they were to return to her master after she ran away. But rather than let her children suffer the horrors of slavery, Sethe tries to kill them, succeeding in killing her eldest daughter, but not the others. She is sent to prison, and eventually returns, shunned from her community and haunted by the baby she killed. Her sons eventually abandon her, and the ghost’s presence only grows stronger over time.
This novel is not only a wonderful commentary on the history of slavery in the United States, but is also something I would call a ‘modern Gothic’ – it has all the right elements for a Gothic story on the same level as Wuthering Heights. A spurned ghost, a lost lover returning after years of absence, a home on the edge of the community that nobody dares to approach. The story has all the right elements to be spooky, as well as poignant. Sethe’s actions, though condemned, come from a place of love and protection; she wants her children to be safe, and if that means they have to die, so be it. Her murdered daughter, her beloved, wants revenge for her life being cut so short. Her living daughter, Denver, simply wants things to be normal, wants an education, wants to be around her community again. Without revealing too much about the ending, it is in fact through the community that Sethe can eventually start to heal from the pain emanating from her past.
This novel brought me to a point where I had no other option but to research the slave trade in the United States to better understand the context of the story. The American Civil War, the slave trade, why Abraham Lincoln’s election was so important: it all made so much more sense with this book in mind. Keep in mind, I’m European – we barely ever hear about the slave trade here unless it’s to talk about what America did. Reading something like this – first at the University of Limerick, and then at the University of Malta for another unit – made everything seem a lot more real and a lot more painful.
Final rating: I’m aware that this review is a bit all over the place, but please read this book I have given a 4.5/5.
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Quotes I Liked: