Sunday, August 18, 2013

Review: Beloved by Toni Morrison

Sethe was born a slave and escaped to Ohio, but eighteen years later she is still not free. She has too many memories of Sweet Home, the beautiful farm where so many hideous things happened. And Sethe's new home is haunted by the ghost of her baby, who died a violent death and whose tombstone is engraved with a single word: Beloved.

My first experience with Toni Morrison's writing was in college when the professor assigned The Bluest Eye. I don't remember much about the plot, but I do remember that it made me feel like I was in the presence of a literary great. The quality of writing was superb and even after reading a number of wonderful books that semester The Bluest Eye impressed me most. Fast forward to this year, when I first saw that Beloved was on the Fiction of Relationship reading list. I knew I was in for a treat yet at the same time I was not sure that the book would live up to my inflated expectations. When the time came to actually read it I was relieved to see that Morrison is consistent in her ability to impress me. Her prose is beautiful in its simplicity, her characters full of life. She simply tells the story and you can't help but care about the people in it, can't help but wonder what will happen next. She doesn't try to make you like her characters, they are who they are with their complicated lives and choices, but you care about them nonetheless. The character who made the biggest impression on me was Denver because she not only had a unique way of dealing with the difficulties her life presented, but she also was the one who stepped up to the challenge of Beloved's presence in the most impressive way. She started out a child younger than her 18 years, yet at the close of the novel she was transformed into a young woman mature beyond her years.
The novel is set in the South before and after the Civil War and tells the stories of Sethe and other former Sweet Home slaves as they build lives for themselves on and off the farm. Their experiences, their desires and their despair are highlighted all the more by our present lives and the fact that many of the events Morrison describes are unthinkable to the present-day reader. They seem almost surreal in their realism, and I had to remind myself that things like what Morrison talks about did happen, and not that long ago.
I believe that a sign of a good book is that it makes you think. More often than not such books don't go down smoothly, but they sure stay with you. They make you want to ponder what's said on those pages, revisit ideas and impressions, look back at the beliefs you hold and see if they still hold up. Beloved does that, and no, it's not an easy read. Not only is it not easy, it also doesn't give up all its secrets, not even at the very end. You can turn the last page and believe what you choose about Beloved because her story doesn't really have an ending, which to me is incredibly intriguing. How do you write a story where the same events can be both supernatural and perfectly explainable? How do you create characters who are both flesh and blood and the product of superstition? I don't know if Morrison's is the only way, but it sure is effective.
I've been thinking for a several days now whether I would recommend this book to a friend and I can't come up with a an answer. On one hand it's not a straightforward book and I don't believe that someone who's looking for a straightforward story would appreciate it. On the other hand it is so well-written that I'm tempted to insist that my friends read it. So my answer would be like that flow-chart, Are you looking for a simple escapist story? Then no, you won't enjoy this novel. Are you looking for something to feed your brain and be beautiful at the same time? Then yes, this novel is for you.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Review: The Ice Palace by Tarjei Vesaas

Siss and Unn are two friends who have only spent one evening in each other's company. But so profound is this evening between them that when Unn inexplicably disappears, Siss's world is shattered. Siss's struggle with her fidelity to the memory of her friend and Unn's fatal exploration of the strange, terrifyingly beautiful frozen waterfall that is the Ice Palace are at the center of this novel.

Had this elegant short novel not been assigned I most likely wouldn't have finished it, but now that I have read it I'm glad that setting it aside wasn't an option. Vesaas writing style is almost painfully spare, which takes some getting used to, yet once I got into it I kept marveling at the beauty of it. It's as if he set out to write a novel as stark as Norwegian winter itself, all sharp lines and few colors, intense in its subdued grace, frozen in place but ready for the spring thaw. It's as if he knew that if he gave the readers just enough they would create in their minds a world that would meld with the bare bones of the story and they would feel a part of it.
The story itself is rather simple: it follows a girl on the cusp of adolescence grieving the disappearance of a new friend, going through disbelief, acceptance and finally release. It's the elegance of execution and the profound insight into the characters that sets this novel apart. Vessas' children seem innocent and straightforward, and yet their problems are complex and far-reaching. The adults are an interesting combination of contradictions: on one hand they give children plenty of freedom to get through problems on their own and on the other hand it's clear just how concerned they are about the youngsters' welfare. One very special character I didn't expect was nature: Vesaas wove it into the plot so much that eventually the ice gripping the small village feels almost alive, it is certainly just as animated as any of the human characters.
I really want to talk about the details but for the sake of not spoiling the novel I will refrain. Just go get it and read it. It's worth every penny.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013


I'm currently working on my review of The Ice Palace by Tarjei Vesaas and in the meantime would like to share this wonderful short film starring one of my favorite actors, Benedict Cumberbatch. Enjoy!