The novel begins in the present time of 1873, in Cincinnati, Ohio. Sethe, a former slave, and her eighteen-year-old daughter, Denver are lucky enough to live free lives; they have a house, originally owned by Sethe’s mother-in-law who died eight years earlier, a steady income, and nice neighbours. However, they have a problem. The house is seemingly haunted by an abusive and violent ghost that disrupts their lives, and results in the neighbours avoiding their house at all costs. Denver has no friends, and she is almost glad of the ghost’s company as she is very lonely. Everyone believes the spirit to be that of her dead sister. Almost like a knight in shining armour, Paul D arrives, a man Sethe knows from her past as a slave, who banishes the ghost. Within a few days, Sethe and Denver find a strange girl sitting on a tree stump near their house. She claims she can’t remember her life before arriving near their house, and says she has walked for days, weeks, even though her dress and shoes are in pristine, almost brand-new condition. Sethe and Denver welcome her to their home, but who is she and why can’t she remember her past?
From this point on, the novel splits into two time frames. The present day in their haunted house in Cincinnati, and twenty years earlier in Kentucky, to when Sethe and her husband worked as slaves. These flashbacks to Kentucky come from various perspectives, and not necessarily in any particular order. You have to piece together the random memories in order to get the full story of what happened twenty years ago.
Narrative voice, as mentioned above, is rather complicated in this novel. Morrison doesn’t use one narrative style, but many, to utilise characters and their own perspectives of certain events. She’s so subtle in her change of narration, you almost don’t notice it’s happened. The main uses of narration are third person omniscient (God-like, they can be everywhere and in every character’s head, knowing what they are thinking and seeing without actually being there), third person limited omniscient (almost like they see and hear everything) and first person. Here is a prime example of the quick change between the omniscient third person narrator and the limited third person:
“124 was spiteful. Full of baby’s venom. The women in the house knew it and so did the children. For years each put up with the spite in his own way, but by 1873 Sethe and her daughter Denver were its only victims.”
This is an example of an omniscient narrator; they seem to know everything about Denver, her mother and their house. The narrator speaks like they were there at the time. Suddenly, there is a switch to limited omniscient third person.
“Baby Suggs didn’t even raise her head. From her sickbed she heard them go but that wasn’t the reason she lay still. It was a wonder to her that her grandsons had taken so long to realize that every house wasn’t like the one on Bluestone Road.”
It becomes limited because the narrator knows everything, but only everything about Baby Suggs, the mother-in-law of Sethe.
I really enjoyed this novel, however sometimes the plot dwindled and I found myself wanting to skip ahead (although I didn’t). The characters were likeable, and it was amazing how Morrison manipulated you to feel one way about a character, but then they do or say something that makes you change your opinion about them completely! Morrison really is magical in this way and I’d love to read more of her material.
Next review: Remainder, by Tom McCarthy.