My real life book club was attempting to read David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas this August. I thought they were being a little overambitious, and I must admit that until I read a marvellously favourable review of it, I was not keen in the slightest to join in. Before I could even get my hands on a copy, the decision to read it was changed as everyone was struggling so much with it. We were told to choose our own books instead and comment upon them at our next meeting.
I was unsure about what to choose. The last time we had a free choice for what to read, I chose the brilliant The Stone Diaries by Carol Shields, and despite my enthusiasm for it, I doubt if anybody has read it on my recommendation. I toyed with the idea of reading a Virginia Woolf or a Charles Dickens, since my suggestions for group reads by both authors have been spurned by those who have never read them. When mentioning that we should read The Waves by Virginia Woolf a few months ago, I received a series of grimaces, and before I had as much as mentioned Dickens as a candidate for another idea I had (choosing one author and each person then reading a book by them and commenting upon it), I was told, ‘Now, literature graduate, no Dickens or Hardy’. What to choose, then? Which book could I extract from my to-read shelves which wouldn’t bore the other book club members (all of whom are at least twenty years older than me, I might add), and which they might like to read? I went to William Faulkner first, all set to review the excellent As I Lay Dying, but then I spotted rather a new addition to my shelves – Sula by Toni Morrison. It is by a Pulitzer Prize and Nobel Prize winner, which is impressive enough already, and it sounded marvellous. Why not?, I thought. I had been looking forward to reading one of Morrison’s books for an age as I’ve heard such great things about her, and this slim volume seemed a good one to begin with.
In her introduction to Sula, Morrison states that in this novel, she aimed to ‘use folk language, vernacular in a manner neither exotic nor comic, neither minstrelized nor microscopically analyzed’. She goes on to say, ‘I wanted to redirect, reinvent the political, cultural, and artistic judgments saved for African American writers’.
The novel begins in 1919 and takes place in Ohio, in a segregated dwelling place known as ‘the Bottom’. The retrospective perspective in the opening paragraph shows the way in which the landscape of the Bottom has altered over time. Morrison tells of how the Bottom was left to a slave by his master, on the condition that he would ‘perform some very difficult chores’ in return. In consequence, ‘The nigger got the hilly land, where planting was backbreaking, where the soil slid down and washed away the seeds, and where the wind lingered all through the winter’. She tells the story of two young girls, Nel and Sula, who grow up with one another in the Bottom.
Morrison has historically grounded her story in the most marvellous manner. Throughout she gives details which relate to a particular moment or period in time, such as a character named Shadrack fighting in the First World War, and the rehabilitation which follows:
“… not daring to acknowledge the fact that he didn’t even know who or what he was… with no past, no language, no tribe, no source, no address book, no comb, no pencil, no clock… and nothing nothing nothing to do… he was sure of one thing only: the unchecked monstrosity of his hands.”
The psychology which Morrison presents in this way is sensitively and skilfully wrought. Along with the historical and period details, she has included rather sad experiences which her characters undergo due purely to their race or class. During a long train journey, Nel’s mother, Helene, becomes desperate for the toilet, but has to wait until they stop in a station which has a bathroom for ‘Colored Women’. There are none, and she has to humiliate herself by using a row of bushes just out of sight in consequence. Nel is told that she cannot play with Sula merely on account of her mother being “sooty”. Helene tells her daughter that she cannot speak Creole and that Nel cannot either, in the hope of leaving her past behind her:
“I don’t talk Creole.” She glanced at her daughter’s wet buttocks. “And neither do you.”
The entirety of the novel is incredibly sensory: ‘saffron dust’, ‘let the tenor’s voice dress him in silk’, ‘let the fingers that danced on wood kiss his skin’, for example. The scene is so well set, which allows the book to unleash its full power. The storyline is not at all predictable, and veers the reader in unexpected directions. It is beautifully written throughout, and would certainly have earnt a place on my treasures shelf if the ending hadn’t been a little disappointing and it had been a little longer.