Beloved came as a bit of a shock to me, purely because, going into the book, I had no idea what I was about to read. I had assumed that the book was a straight civil rights/slavery narrative, in the same vein as Roll of Thunder, Hear my Cry, rather than the ghost story that it actually is.
Of course, just because the novel has supernatural themes, that doesn’t preclude it from simultaneously having the features I expected. Slavery, or the spectre and memory of it, drives the plot and provides motivation for a majority of the characters, and this is as brutal as you’d expect a book dedicated to “Sixty Million and more” (the estimated number of people who died as a direct result of the Atlantic Slave Trade) to be.
What’s interesting however is that despite the fact slavery is portrayed as abhorrent and evil, slave-owners do not necessarily possess these characteristics. Although it is the Sethe, the main character’s, escape from the dehumanising treatment of the plantation owner, his predecessor was a much more benevolent character, allowing one of his slaves to buy his mother’s freedom, even going so far as to provide her a new home and escort her to it. Which of course doesn’t make up for the fact he had owned her as property, but in contrast to the actions of his successors, it provides a refreshingly balanced depiction.
Not that I particularly feel that slavers need rehabilitating in the media, but it does make for a more interesting read than a story which falls back on the same tired trope of automatically demonising slavers, when (I like to think) society has moved past this being a moral point that has to be made.
Aside from this, the quality of Morrison’s writing, particularly her characterisation was astonishing. In contrast to other books I’ve read recently, the way she treats character voices is impeccable, easily conveying time and place, in a way that a lot of authors struggle with. So to, the character’s personalities, history, and even mental health are demonstrated by the chapters that are written from their points of view, and in some cases, particularly that of Denver, Sethe’s daughter, character growth.
For despite the fact that this is a supernatural/ghost story told in the form of a slavery narrative, the book doesn’t seem to really be “about” either of those things, and instead I think that underneath all that, Beloved is about people learning that they can never escape their pasts, and instead they must choose how they deal with it. And I think that it is this thread that makes it such a wonderful book.