‘The Bluest Eye’ by Toni Morrison ****

I have enjoyed a few of Toni Morrison’s books in the past, but for some reason have not got around to picking up any of her novels in recent years.  This all changed when I came across an available copy of her debut, The Bluest Eye, on my library’s app, and settled down with it immediately.  The novel, which is deemed a modern classic, was first published in 1970.

The Bluest Eye ‘chronicles the tragic, torn lives of a poor black family in 1940s Ohio’, an era which I am always drawn to.  The Breedlove family consists of parents Pauline and Cholly, son Sam, and daughter Pecola.  Pecola, rather heartbreakingly, ‘becomes the focus of the mingled love and hatred engendered by her family’s frailty and the world’s cruelty as the novel moves toward a savage but poignant resolution.’28807242

Although evidently a piece of historical fiction, there are many parallels which can be drawn with today’s society, the majority of which are sadly negative.  The edition which I read contained an enlightening foreword written by Morrison, in which she comments: ‘There can’t be anyone, I am sure, who doesn’t know what it feels like to be disliked, even rejected, momentarily or for sustained periods of time.’  She goes on to say that when she began to write The Bluest Eye, she was most interested in the ‘tragic and disabling consequences of accepting rejection as legitimate, as self-evident.’  Morrison also wished to acknowledge standards of beauty within society, which she says ‘was not simply something to behold; it was something one could do.’  She focused on ‘how something as grotesque as the demonization of an entire race could take root inside the most delicate member of society: a child; the most vulnerable member: a female.’

The novel’s beginning is both striking and shocking: ‘Quiet as it’s kept, there were no marigolds in the fall of 1941.  We thought, at the time, that it was because Pecola was having her father’s baby that the marigolds did not grow.’  Pecola is a young girl when the story begins, and she often tries to make herself disappear.  She is cruel about her own appearance, and is taught constantly by those around her that white beauty counts for more than black, and that only the utmost beauty can be attained by those who have blue eyes.  This, naively, is what Pecola begins to wish for: ‘Each night without fail, she prayed for blue eyes…  To have something as wonderful as that happen would take a long, long time.’

Pecola is at a great disadvantage; not only is she a vulnerable black girl, who has to contend with racism and violence in her day to day life, she also lives in abject poverty.  This sadly makes her an easy target for a lot of different people.  Using Pecola as a focus, Morrison is able to reveal the myriad prejudices of everyone around her.  Aside from Pecola, very few of the other characters in The Bluest Eye deserve the reader’s sympathy.

We learn of Pecola’s tumultuous and unsettled upbringing, with parents who rarely got on: ‘Cholly and Mrs. Breedlove fought each other with a darkly brutal formalism that was paralleled only by their lovemaking.  Tacitly they had agreed not to kill each other…  They did not talk, groan, or curse during these beatings.  There was only the muted sound of falling things, and flesh on unsurprised flesh.’  This physical instability also carried into the family’s physical home.  For a time, the Breedloves had lived in an abandoned shopfront, which ‘foists itself on the eye of the passerby in a manner that is both irritating and melancholy.’

Morrison uses multiple perspectives in The Bluest Eye, which built to create a novel with a great deal of depth.  The first part of the story is narrated by Claudia.  Pecola was sent to stay with her family by ‘the county’ when the Breedloves became homeless, and her father, Cholly, was taken to prison.

Morrison captures scenes and characters deftly, and has written a highly memorable coming of age story in The Bluest Eye.  The novel is suffused with sadness and violence, and reveals so much about humankind.  Morrison discusses the futility which can exist within relationships, the difficulties which Pecola faces, and the spiral of poverty which never allows her to escape.

From reading the comments of others, I was fully prepared that reading The Bluest Eye might put me through the emotional wringer.  It certainly did.  Although written in prose which was quite often beautiful, some scenes were very difficult to read due to their content.  Pecola is terribly hurt on several occasions, and the way in which this is relayed to the reader is sometimes a little emotionless; Morrison focuses upon the actions and the raw feelings which they create.  The Bluest Eye is so vivid, and it feels so real.  The story, and its scenes, are almost entirely troubling, but the novel itself soars.


The 1977 Club

As is sadly becoming habit, my studies and my current book-buying ban have left me with relatively little time to find a title from 1977 to contribute to the excellent ‘club’ run by Karen at Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings and Simon at Stuck in a Book.  Whilst I have therefore been unable to contribute a full review, I thought I would collect together ten titles published in 1977 which I am looking forward to reading in future.


1. Quartet in Autumn by Barbara Pym 27411950
In 1970s London Edwin, Norman, Letty and Marcia work in the same office and suffer the same problem – loneliness. Lovingly and with delightful humour, Pym conducts us through their day-to-day existence: their preoccupations, their irritations, their judgements, and – perhaps most keenly felt – their worries about having somehow missed out on life as post-war Britain shifted around them.  Deliciously, blackly funny and full of obstinate optimism, Quartet in Autumn shows Barbara Pym’s sensitive artistry at its most sparkling. A classic from one of Britain’s most loved and highly acclaimed novelists, its world is both extraordinary and familiar, revealing the eccentricities of everyday life.


2. Delta of Venus by Anais Nin
In Delta of Venus Anaïs Nin penned a lush, magical world where the characters of her imagination possess the most universal of desires and exceptional of talents. Among these provocative stories, a Hungarian adventurer seduces wealthy women then vanishes with their money; a veiled woman selects strangers from a chic restaurant for private trysts; and a Parisian hatmaker named Mathilde leaves her husband for the opium dens of Peru. Delta of Venus is an extraordinarily rich and exotic collection from the master of erotic writing.


799093. In Patagonia by Bruce Chatwin
An exhilarating look at a place that still retains the exotic mystery of a far-off, unseen land, Bruce Chatwin’s exquisite account of his journey through Patagonia teems with evocative descriptions, remarkable bits of history, and unforgettable anecdotes. Fueled by an unmistakable lust for life and adventure and a singular gift for storytelling, Chatwin treks through “the uttermost part of the earth”— that stretch of land at the southern tip of South America, where bandits were once made welcome—in search of almost forgotten legends, the descendants of Welsh immigrants, and the log cabin built by Butch Cassidy. An instant classic upon publication in 1977, In Patagonia is a masterpiece that has cast a long shadow upon the literary world.


4. Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter by Mario Vargas Llosa
Mario Vargas Llosa’s brilliant, multilayered novel is set in the Lima, Peru, of the author’s youth, where a young student named Marito is toiling away in the news department of a local radio station. His young life is disrupted by two arrivals.  The first is his aunt Julia, recently divorced and thirteen years older, with whom he begins a secret affair. The second is a manic radio scriptwriter named Pedro Camacho, whose racy, vituperative soap operas are holding the city’s listeners in thrall. Pedro chooses young Marito to be his confidant as he slowly goes insane.  Interweaving the story of Marito’s life with the ever-more-fevered tales of Pedro Camacho, Vargas Llosa’s novel is hilarious, mischievous, and masterful, a classic named one of the best books of the year by the New York Times Book Review.


5. The Hour of the Star by Clarice Lispector 762390
The Hour of the Star, Clarice Lispector’s consummate final novel, may well be her masterpiece. Narrated by the cosmopolitan Rodrigo S.M., this brief, strange, and haunting tale is the story of Macabéa, one of life’s unfortunates. Living in the slums of Rio and eking out a poor living as a typist, Macabéa loves movies, Coca-Cola, and her rat of a boyfriend; she would like to be like Marylin Monroe, but she is ugly, underfed, sickly, and unloved. Rodrigo recoils from her wretchedness, and yet he cannot avoid realization that for all her outward misery, Macabéa is inwardly free. She doesn’t seem to know how unhappy she should be. Lispector employs her pathetic heroine against her urbane, empty narrator–edge of despair to edge of despair–and, working them like a pair of scissors, she cuts away the reader’s preconceived notions about poverty, identity, love, and the art of fiction. In her last book she takes readers close to the true mystery of life and leaves us deep in Lispector territory indeed.


6. Petals of Blood by Ngugi wa Thiong’o
‘The puzzling murder of three African directors of a foreign-owned brewery sets the scene for this fervent, hard-hitting novel about disillusionment in independent Kenya. A deceptively simple tale, Petals of Blood is on the surface a suspenseful investigation of a spectacular triple murder in upcountry Kenya. Yet as the intertwined stories of the four suspects unfold, a devastating picture emerges of a modern third-world nation whose frustrated people feel their leaders have failed them time after time. First published in 1977, this novel was so explosive that its author was imprisoned without charges by the Kenyan government. His incarceration was so shocking that newspapers around the world called attention to the case, and protests were raised by human-rights groups, scholars, and writers, including James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, Donald Barthelme, Harold Pinter, and Margaret Drabble.


3387497. The Ginger Tree by Oswald Wynd
In 1903, a young Scotswoman named Mary Mackenzie sets sail for China to marry her betrothed, a military attaché in Peking. But soon after her arrival, Mary falls into an adulterous affair with a young Japanese nobleman, scandalizing the British community. Casting her out of the European community, her compatriots tear her away from her small daughter. A woman abandoned and alone, Mary learns to survive over forty tumultuous years in Asia, including two world wars and the cataclysmic Tokyo earthquake of 1923.


8. Anne Sexton: A Self-Portrait in Letters by Anne Sexton (edited by Lois Ames)
An expression of an extraordinary poet’s life story in her own words, this book shows Anne Sexton as she really was in private, as she wrote about herself to family, friends, fellow poets, and students. Anne’s daughter Linda Gray Sexton and her close confidant Lois Ames have judiciously chosen from among thousands of letters and provided commentary where necessary. Illustrated throughout with candid photographs and memorabilia, the letters — brilliant, lyrical, caustic, passionate, angry — are a consistently revealing index to Anne Sexton’s quixotic and exuberant personality.


9. Monkey Grip by Helen Garner 7405876
In “Monkey Grip”, Helen Garner charts the lives of a generation. Her characters are exploring new ways of loving and living – and nothing is harder than learning to love lightly. Nora and Javo are trapped in a desperate relationship. Nora’s addiction is romantic love; Javo’s is hard drugs. The harder they pull away, the tighter the monkey grip. A lyrical, gritty, rough-edged novel that deserves its place as a classic of Australian fiction.


10. Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison
Milkman Dead was born shortly after a neighborhood eccentric hurled himself off a rooftop in a vain attempt at flight. For the rest of his life he, too, will be trying to fly. With this brilliantly imagined novel, Toni Morrison transfigures the coming-of-age story as audaciously as Saul Bellow or Gabriel García Márquez. As she follows Milkman from his rustbelt city to the place of his family’s origins, Morrison introduces an entire cast of strivers and seeresses, liars and assassins, the inhabitants of a fully realized black world.


Have you read any of these?  Which is your favourite book published in 1977?


Flash Reviews (7th November 2013)

A Country Doctor’s Notebook by Mikhail Bulgakov ***
I absolutely adore The Master and Margarita, so when I spotted A Country Doctor’s Notebook on a book shopping trip, I could not resist picking it up.  I was expecting great things from this short story collection, but I must admit that I was a touch disappointed.  Most of the tales here are based upon experiences which Bulgakov had during the eighteen month period which he spent in a doctor’s practice in rural Russia.  The stories here, therefore, are partly fictional constructs and partly biographical.  The characters who feature in each are often highly dramatic, and provide an almost farcical addition to the whole, which I think was my least favourite aspect of the book.  The stories themselves were very well written and just the right length.  Whilst I enjoyed some of the scenes which Bulgakov created, others were a little too gruesome for my liking.

Paradise by Toni Morrison **
Paradise takes part in an all-black town named Ruby, in Oklahoma.  The building of the town is described in the first twenty or so pages, and whilst Morrison does set the scene well, it feels a little dry.  The novel is told by way of an omniscient narrator setting out the stories of eight different women – Mavis, Grace, Seneca, Divine, Patricia, Consolata, Lone and Save-Marie.  These women do not all live within the town limits of Ruby, but for all it is either a starting point or a destination for their stories.  The novel is therefore essentially made up of short stories which are geographically connected.  This technique works well, but it does add repetition into the whole, which is a shame.

Mavis’ story, the first in the collection, begins after her baby twins have been suffocated inside her car whilst she went inside the supermarket to buy her husband’s supper, and forgot to leave any windows open.  This was my favourite of all the tales, despite its melancholy.  Throughout, I did not always love Morrison’s writing, and the flow was not as good as it was in Sula.  The entirety of the book felt rather unsettling, and a little dark.  I did not love all of the stories – I did not even like some of them, if I’m honest – and I am glad that this isn’t the first of Morrison’s novels which I’ve read, for I would not have been overly enthused to pick up any of her other work on the strength of Paradise alone.  The construction of the novel was interesting, but it did not quite work for me overall.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams ***
I was a little unsure as to whether The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy would appeal to me or not, but my boyfriend loves it, and so I thought I would give it a go.  I do not like science fiction as a rule, so I was rather surprised that I enjoyed the book.  I wasn’t expecting it to be such a light read when I began.  Overall, I felt that the novel was a very clever one.  I liked the parallels drawn between things on Earth and those in the wider galaxy – for example, the demolition of a house to create a new bypass, and the destruction of Earth to do the same thing on a larger scale.  If Roald Dahl had turned his hand to sci-fi, I imagine his creation would have been something akin to this.  Whilst I liked the novel, I am not interested enough in it to read the entire series.  I am, however, going to be watching the film adaptation (admittedly, mainly because darling Stephen Fry is in it).


Sula by Toni Morrison ****

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.