Beloved by Toni Morrison

Beloved by Toni Morrison

What kind of mother cuts her child’s head off with a hacksaw? A mother who felt she had no alternative, that she was actually protecting her child from worse fates.

This is the story of that mother named Sethe, and her dead daughter Beloved. This is also a story of slavery set about the time before, during, and after the civil war in America.

So, based on my summary above, you know it is not a light book, not an easy read. It’s emotionally very wearying. It’s not a long book by any means, it’s not even particularly hard to read when it comes to the vocabulary. But, it’s hard to read huge chunks at one go without wanting to weep or get into a murderous rage…depending on the reader’s personality.

It’s also hard to write my thoughts about the book. I struggled with a book review without trying to reveal any spoilers, but it came out all bland and didn’t convey anything to anyone. So, this is my second draft and I decided to just put one of the plot spoilers upfront and then free myself to write the rest of the review without any stress. I hope that doesn’t spoil the review for anyone.

In addition, I knew this spoiler before I read the book, and I think it made it a little easier for me to read. It gave me the context I needed because the first section of the book is very confusing. There are a lot of names thrown around and it’s not easy to make the connections between people.

The names are also very confusing. I always thought Halle was a girl’s name (Halle Berry, duh), but in this book it’s a man’s name. It took me some time to figure it all out. It helped for me to know that yes, Sethe kills her child Beloved. And then read the rest of the book to figure out the whys, the wherefores, the final impact, and the retribution.

It also helps to know before you start reading what exactly I mean when I say this is a hard book to read emotionally. This book is not a banned book for nothing. There are frequent and graphic references to rape, extreme racist violence, sex with animals, and a childbirth scene that leaves Breaking Dawn’s childbirth scene look like a walk in the park.

It’s also hard to read how an entire race was kept so backward for so long. There is a section where a newly freed slave is so happy when he receives a coin for helping somebody load stuff in a van. He walks around with the coin, and is so amazed that he can go into a shop and buy something with it. It’s just written so beautifully, and so much from the heart.

And that’s why I love this book. The writing just feels like an outpouring from the heart. You can feel every emotion felt by Sethe, and the other characters in the story in their own voices.

But, there was stuff I didn’t love either…

  • It’s great that Morrison writes in the colloquial lingo used by the people in that time. However, this sometimes makes the lingo hard to understand.
  • The story also shifts back and forth between the past and present, without any kind of introduction. Time itself seems like a variable in the story. It’s incredibly hard to figure out when things happen, and if you are like me, it does put a spoke in things. I really wanted to know what happens when just so that I could put a timeline on events, but it doesn’t happen.
  • This has got to be the only book I read where there is an entire chapter without any kind of punctuation whatsoever. Incredibly hard to figure out what’s going on. Thankfully, it doesn’t really impact the rest of the story in any way.
  • The plot that Morrison uses to illustrate the issues of slavery and the black people of that time is ludicrous in the extreme. A baby ghost haunting a family, oh please, but when I got over the silly plot, and got over wanting to know about the ghost, and about Beloved’s identity, I realized I loved the book. This is really a book where the story plays second fiddle to the issues and the writing. If you want a regular, structured, neatly wrapped story in the classical format, skip this book. If you are interested in an experimental form of writing and story structure, then you must, must read this book.

This is the first book I read as part of The Classics Club reading challenge and I just loved it, and highly recommend it to all classic lovers.

  • Joseph Fountain

    Wonderful review. Yes, you need to put this down from time to time just to mourn. My review:

    • Nishita

      @joseph_fountain:disqus I like how you phrased your comment. Very true. I did feel the need to take breaks from time to time when the story was too upsetting.

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  • I just read this for my Classics Club list, and your review is just so beautifully written and eloquent! Says everything that I wanted to say or tried to say, but better.

    • @Sarahsaysread: Aw, blush :). Will head over to your blog and check out your review

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  • Nishita, this is fine review and I think the spoilers did not detract from the essence of the review at all. It ratehr enhanced it. (I use spoilers a lot) I wish to add that when viewed in the African cultural context, the ghost of baby haunting a family is not ludicrous at all, because it does happen in extreme cases in Africa where the child is not at rest due to the circumstances of his death.

    • @readinpleasure: Sorry for the late response. I have been slow getting back on comments. This is interesting info you gave me. I never knew that this was a common belief in Africa. I guess that explains the story in part. Wish that this was mentioned in the foreword. It would have helped me appreciate the book more while reading it. I”ll be honest, the ghost kind of unsettled me at first.

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  • Thanks for this review, It’s been one of my favorite reviews of Classics Club members. You might want to check this up: 🙂

  • I did not know that there’s a mother who cuts off her child’s head with a hacksaw. That really tells what this is for a book. And it makes me read it! Not because I want to read about mothers killing their babies (and couldn’t she have found a less painful and messy way to do it?), but because if she has to kill her baby to save her from something worse, then this book could be one of those books that really has something to say. It’s already on my wish list – but I think I might just have to push it higher up.

    • @christinasr: That’s the main gist of the story, but the plot is much more eerie than that. I didn’t want to give away the additional details and spoil the suspense for readers. You need to move this book up your TBR list.

      • It really makes me want to read it. I think I will have to get that book soon. It sounds like it’s worth owning.

  • Interesting! I just might pick this up. You have done justice to the review, and set the expectations right. I am reading a much recommended book to parents, though a work of fiction, called ‘We need to talk about Kevin’ by Lionel Shriver. Have you read it?

    • We Need to Talk About Kevin is amazing. I read it earlier this year and it’s so hard to read at times, but worth it.

      • @christinasr: I’ve heard a lot about this book and it is definitely there on my reading list. I think I need to wait awhile though. Need to recharge with some lighter stuff before I delve into one more emotional read.

        • Yeah, Kevin is not exactly light and it definitely demands a lot of it’s reader. Tough and challenging book – so worth it.

  • Nicely written… very detailed.. I will not be reading the book but will definitely go ahead with ur other book reviews..

  • I don’t know what your first draft was like, but this final draft has come out as a really good, structured and balanced review. I’ve read quite a few reviews on The Beloved before, and yours is undoubtedly the best! I’ll have to re-read it when I’ve gathered the courage to read it myself. I’m not looking forward to the raping and the oppression of an entire race, but the mystery of Beloved’s death/murder does have a pull on me. I am, however, looking forward to more well-written Classic Club reviews 😉

    • @Chinoiseries: You think so? Thanks. I really wanted to do justice to the book, but I feel like I ended up just rambling 🙁 a big fault of mine.

      • Yes I do! And I don’t see it as rambling, but rather structured criticism 😉 I like the idea of using bullets.

  • I couldn’t even with this book. I had to read it at university, and the whole time I was reading it and we were talking about it in class, I was extremely nauseated and miserable from how upsetting this book is. Though even without the upsetting plot, I didn’t love the book. I’m not a fan of stream-of-consciousness and weird punctuation. I like my consciousness filtered through a narrative, and my punctuation normal.

    • @Jenny: I can’t imagine “having” to read it as part of studies. It just seems like a bit too mature a book. I think if I read this book in my twenties, I would have hated it too. Somehow, now I can appreciate it more.

      I hate stream of consciousness too. It’s awful. I loathed Mrs. Dalloway, but I think the writing suited the story in this book.

  • Thank you for this. All I’ve ever heard about this book is that “its hard.” with very little by the way of concrete explanation. From your review, and having read a couple other books by Morrison, I see what people may be referencing by just saying its hard… and now I think I want to give it a shot. -Sarah

    • @The Classics Club: It is hard, and I did want to state why it was hard in my review. I just hope that I didn’t spoil any suspense (about the child killing) for anyone. I don’t think so because I’ve seen some copies directly mentioning it in the blurb at the back of the book.

  • I read this a few years ago but it’s on my list for a re-read, mainly for the reasons you gave–it’s hard to follow, I didn’t know what was going to happen, and so I think I missed out on a lot! You might also enjoy Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye”…it’s heartbreaking as well but so good (and a quicker, easier read).

    • @Erica L: I do plan to read The Bluest Eye. I like her style of writing 🙂

  • Your first sentence is the most intense sentence I’ve ever read in a review, haha. I’m not familiar with the book, but I definitely want to check it out!

  • Good you gave the spoiler…I was tempted by the cover, but now I have decided not to read much great this book is 🙂 You save me a lot of pain.

    • @Elizabeth: I know the theme is not everyone’s cup of tea. There is some real terrible stuff. That said, it is a great book and I am glad I read it.

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