The Nobel Prize-winning author explores the earliest days of the slave trade in the American colonies. Set in the 1680s, the novel follows Florens, the daughter of an enslaved mother who volunteers her as payment for her owner's debt. Florens struggles with her abandonment and life at the new farm.
Toni Morrison has made a ferociously beautiful new work ... Readers are plunged into the present-tense blood and sweat of it—slave trade, turf wars, religious sectarianism, sex, childbirth, food, drink, weather, farming, building, pestilence—and in Europe, class struggle and executions as entertainment. Morrison burns these particulars into us, through her astonishing story ... What flood a reader's senses are Morrison's women and men: black, red and white; slaves, indentured and free—deeply inhabited, complexly human, furiously willful, conveyed through whip-crack language. Morrison may imbue characters with a more modern habit of intellection than her setting warrants, but that's quibbling. A Mercy accomplishes art's miracle: Swept head-on into the brutal specificity of a place and era, we are forced to own it.
A Mercy has neither the terrible passion of Beloved—how many times can we ask a writer to go to such a place?—nor the spirited ingenuity of Love, the most satisfying of Morrison’s subsequent novels. But it’s her deepest excavation into America’s history ... Postcolonialists and feminists, perhaps even Greens and Marxists, may latch onto A Mercy, but they should latch with care, lest Morrison prove too many-minded for them. This novel isn’t a polemic—does anybody really need to be persuaded that exploitation is evil?—but a tragedy ... In Morrison’s latest version of pastoral, it’s only mercy or the lack of it that makes the American landscape heaven or hell, and the gates of Eden open both ways at once.
At its best, Morrison's prose is haunting and dreamlike, and her narrative command is masterly, as she unrelentingly frustrates her characters' aspirations. A Mercy returns to the dark themes of Morrison's earlier novels—racism, violence, lust—but it is also more ambiguous about race relations than her other work, and it expends more energy exploring the related issues of power, poverty and the struggle for personal freedom. With its narrative weft of dependence and salvation, A Mercy is a timely reminder of the fragile hopes that have bound America's inhabitants to each other, from our earliest days into the present.