A Mercy by Toni Morrison
Short Review: A beautiful book, but difficult to listen to at times. Dr. Morrison is a wonderful reader in small doses, but perhaps should have handed this book over to a pro to read in its entirety.
Long Review: I’m one of those Morrison devotees, reading and re-reading her work, attending lectures and readings—a general obsessive. I studied her work thoroughly as a student, writing a thesis on Tar Baby and leading a class through Beloved. This is the first of Morrison’s books I’ve listened to, though I’ve read all of her fiction and most of her non-fiction. I love her compression of language, her ability to express intense, layered emotion and thought while writing in the non-standard English of communities that are often unfamiliar to the average reader of literary fiction. Morrison’s writing veers towards poetry again and again in most of her books. Ultimately, I think that’s what makes this book literally better on paper. It’s a fantastic book, but I prefer to read it with my eyes.
I don’t think it’s unusual that there’s a separation between the books I prefer to listen to and the books that I prefer to read on paper. Audiobooks are great for lighter books, and particularly for books with a clear narrative arc, at least for me. But when I want to read non-fiction or very dense fiction, I find that it’s frustrating to listen at someone else’s pace, and to miss that visual play of words on a page. When I read Morrison and other writers who use such a compressed style, I stop frequently to consider the last line or paragraph, re-reading as I go, and making sure I’ve puzzled through it all. That’s pretty tough to do with an audiobook, particularly if you listen on the go like I do.
A Mercy is set in 17th century colonial America. It follows Florens, a young girl born on a Portuguese-owned tobacco plantation who is sold as a young girl to a expunge a debt by her original owner. Separated from her mother, Florens comes into the care of landowner Jacob Vaark, his wife Rebekka, and their Native-American slave Lina. The book delves into the multi-racial slave system in play in the colonies, sexual mores, inter-religious strife, economics, betrayal, family, American history, relationships between women. Like most of Morrison’s books it’s thickly layered and meticulously researched.
Dr. Morrison reads her own work. I’m loathe to say this: I think it was a mistake. I’ve listened to Morrison read many times before, and one of her readings is a thing of wonder. But at a reading, she reads a short portion and then responds to questions, and reads another portion and responds to questions. She doesn’t need to read an entire book at such events, so weaknesses in her delivery don’t rankle. The best audiobook readers are great actors and great technicians of speech and pacing—for all of her genius, Morrison is neither of those things.
Despite my complaints, I love this book. I’m happy to have listened to it, and I did enjoy it. But I feel the audiobook only serves as an addition to the book on paper. I think just listening to the audiobook leaves the reader outside of the real story of A Mercy, and it’s absolutely a story worth reading. If you’re only going to read it once, read it on paper.