Toni Morrison’s A Mercy feels like her best book yet. I say “feels” because in the novel Morrison creates — not just conveys but actually creates — such feelings, both physical and emotional, that I experienced what each of the narrators experience (the narration changes from chapter to chapter, seamlessly, perfectly). I felt the fog roiling around me, the rocking ship beneath me, the assurance of firm land (and the disorientation of its solidity after a life at sea), and the the rolling gait of the horse I traveled on. I also felt the envy of seeing another man’s bounty, all the worse for it being undeserved; the peace of finding a kinship with another, and love; I felt viscerally the fear of being an unprotected woman alone; and worst of all, I felt the despair of loss beyond my control, and the wretched grabbing for anything to pull me out of the consuming grief.
Despair in the novel is always there, kept at bay, but still there. It is the dark shadow of being alone and confined. Each narrator is an orphan of some sort; they have been flung out in the world to make it on their own. They are shackled in their efforts by their identity, confined inescapably by race or gender or class or religion to be treated a certain way.
But Morrison also presents the confinement that is good and necessary and a savior against despair. That is the desired confinement of inclusion within a clan, a friendship, a marriage. The narrators of A Mercy are brought together and together they create a unit, a community made up of themselves. It is an unlikely bunch and not an easy grouping, but they feel safe within the enclosed world they have made. Change inevitably intervenes and the reactions of each character are completely believable but heartbreaking, nevertheless. The desired confinement is no longer there, and yet the inescapable confinements press in, even more.
Given the harsh circumstances of the early days of European-governed America, a community of some sort was necessary to survive. Groupings based on religion and language developed, and usually with a strong barrier between those within and those without the group. There was a strange dichototmy in this new land between freedom (great open spaces, clean and abundant land and water, wild opportunities) and fear (of strangeness, otherness, wilderness). Community offered a kind of protection but freedoms were constrained to control the community. Throw in greed and you have the savagery that allowed slavery, witch hunts, decimation of native tribes, indentured servitude, and religious hypocrisy to the Nth degree. A Mercy documents all the above.
But A Mercy also allows that there were acts of goodness that reached out across enclosed groups and that survived the savagery, fought against it even. There are many acts of mercy in this book, acts of self-sacrifice and generosity and simple kindness. Rarely, if ever, is there a mercy rendered whose motive is understood by the one receiving it, but is that a failure of mercy or of understanding? The act of mercy referred to in the title saves one character from a threat but delivers her into a consuming sense of abandonment: I believe she can survive the latter but could not have survived the former.
So what is the value of community? Friends and family, people with whom we share values, are vital to our own well-being. But there also has to be a generosity across the communities to allow people to live freely and as they wish: no dominion of one group over another.
There is a beautifully rendered section of the book (actually, the whole thing is beautifully rendered) when a woman is coming across the ocean from England to be married to a man she’s never met. She travels in the lowest level of comfort, shared with a group of other women, some being transported out of England for crimes and others coming to America as indentured servants or prostitutes. Within the miserable confines of their shared space, the women create a brief but comforting community. No men are there, defining them or taking them or rejecting them: “Women of and for men, in those few moments, they were neither” and they are safe. “Wretched as was the space they crouched in, it was nevertheless blank where a past did not haunt nor a future beckon.” I find that sentence absolutely perfect in rendering that feeling of being suspended in time: after lifetimes of only worry and fear, for a time they are free. Contrast it to the slave ship described later, where there the past and the future are as real as the present: the fear is all consuming and the present is horrible, bodies shackled together and the only freedom, death.
Even within the comfort of love or friendship, and certainly in the larger world of communities, there is failure of understanding. Is Morrison demonstrating that we rarely understand each other, that we fail in our efforts at connection, and thus we are always alone? Maybe. But at the same time, Morrison shows it is necessary that we continue to strive for connection because it is only these relationships of friend, lover, and community, that can allow for us some place of safe haven. Connection serves as protection against all the ways in which we are unfairly confined by our gender or religion or race. And acts of mercy, understood or not, have a power that transcends confinement, and can transform a destiny of despair to one of hope.