A truly astonishingly accomplished woman, Toni Morrison has been writing about the polemical issue of racial prejudice in the US with sharp, unflinching insight for almost fifty years. Her talent has not gone unnoticed: in 2012, she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, adding this to her extensive collection of accolades, including the Pulitzer Prize and the Nobel Prize for Literature. Here’s a look at some of her greatest novels.
Her first novel, published in 1970, and written while she was still an editor at Random House, The Bluest Eye follows a year in the life of Pecola Breedlove, a young African American girl living in the 30s who develops a hatred for her skin and eye colour, praying for blue eyes. Its frank treatment of harrowing events such as rape and incest, as well as that ever-polemical topic of racism, actually led to a number of attempts to ban it from schools and libraries.
Sula, written in 1973, concerns a mainly black community situated in Ohio. The novel chronicles the intertwined lives of two girls in this community, Nel and Sula, who come from opposite kinds of families – one conventional and one eccentric – and lead very different ways of life. We observe their turbulent friendship and the dynamics of the community and, as the characters struggle to make sense of the complex circumstances by imposing moral judgements, you will find yourself questioning your own concepts of morality too.
The book that won Toni Morrison her Nobel Prize, this 1977 masterpiece recounts the life of Macon ‘Milkman’ Dead III, a black man living in Michigan during the mid-20th Century. In keeping with its title, it is full of ambiguous religious imagery and themes. It also explores complicated questions such as whether we can ever know what truth is, the pursuit of wealth, and the tensions between freedom and slavery. This is a hard-hitting yet beautifully poetic exploration not just of African American identity but of what it really means to be human.
Set in the 19th century, this 1987 novel examines the harrowing effects of slavery as ex-slave woman Sethe is still haunted by her deeds and memories eighteen years after fleeing the plantation, becoming convinced that a young woman called ‘Beloved’ is her dead daughter returned to her. In this frank exploration of guilt, parenthood, and the psychological consequences of slavery, Toni Morrison gives a voice to the unspeakably horrific experiences so many African Americans faced during this difficult era.
While Beloved concerns the final decades of slavery, A Mercy, published in 2008, examines its very beginnings during the seventeenth century, when America itself was still in its early infancy. Florens, a young slave girl abandoned by her mother, is on a quest for the love that her mother has withheld from her. A dark insight into the realities of slavery, this novel is as much a story of the complicated tensions between a mother and a daughter as it is of the politically significant roots of racism in the US.