Racism. Black Lives Matter. Coronavirus! All subjects and words that have appeared far too much in our 2020 lexicon, and all subjects that are complicated, emotive and divisive. The discussions we had branched way beyond the book and into a spectrum of topics, which indicate how complex ( and yet interesting) this subject is.

Without actually being a black person who has suffered first hand racist commentary, it is almost impossible to speak with authority on the subject, indeed each and every black person no doubt has their own nuanced opinion and standpoint. All we can do, is try to understand, to mentally put ourselves in other shoes for a time and see the world from another perspective. In many ways, that is the gift that books like this can give us.

Pecola’s shoes were hard to be in. For some, too much altogether, and indeed early criticism of the book was that it was too heavy handed, too “melodramatically brutal and overly symbolic” There is no arc of progress, no redemption or hope at the end. Toni Morrison does not try to make the story more palatable, if anything she tries to cast no blame on individuals but lets their opinions and (sometimes unforgiveable) actions seem like the natural outcome of an individual’s circumstances. More victim than resilient survivor. It is worth noting that the civil rights injustices and protests were ongoing in the US throughout the 60’s - and Morrison wrote this from 1965 -70. No wonder the raw bitterness is still there.

Where the story falls particularly hard, though, is on Pecola – who as a vulnerable and unloved child, has no self worth to fall back on, no resilience to see her through. Claudia, our narrator, is a feisty and strong child, which contrasts all the more with Pecola. Neither mother is particularly loving, but we do see that Claudia’s mother cares, in less obvious ways.  The central theme of the book is therefore not that Pecola, or any other child, particularly wants to be white – or have blue eyes- but it’s all about the perception of beauty, and the sense of self-worth.

Setting the subject matter aside, all readers were impressed with Morrison’s spectacular writing. At times even with humour, the prose is so densely and skilfully crafted that it is hard to believe it was her debut novel. Some of the structural parts, such as the chapters by season, and the ‘Dick and Jane’ chapter headings, didn’t work quite as well for some, but overall it is hard to doubt her skill. Even incidental characters such as the prostitutes, add colour, character and texture to the narrative.

As a side note, Toni Morrison has written approximately another eight novels, as well as plays and copious speeches and essays. This work is probably one of the most accessible, so fair warning to those looking to find some more of her brilliant prose!

October 13, 2020 by Linda Murray