This book deserves a Masters thesis, and not the paltry little Goodreads review that I can give it.
I feel as though I've just taken a walk late at night in an unfamiliar neighbourhood, where I've peeked into windows and glimpsed intimacies--not quite secrets, rather private moments--between people who are like me but unlike me.
I'm certain I've only understood the top layer of what Morrison is saying here, since the images and characters are so rich and complex and since her work is new to me. I can tell that some of it will remain elusive, as I do not have the knowledge that will allow me to understand these characters in their contexts and as part of a very specific cultural history. It's more than knowing the facts of history; it's having been shaped by that history so that the following, among much else, makes deeper sense:
- Milkman's selfishness, and Pilate's and Ruth's sacrifices for him ("From the beginning, his mother and Pilate had fought for his life, and he had never so much as made either of them a cup of tea.")
- Hagar's and Ryna's descent into madness after being abandoned by what they considered their only loves (or was it, as Susan Byrd suggested, simply that Ryna was left with 21 children)
- Guitar's violence, which I understand in general, but which I don't quite grasp toward Milkman in particular ("Would you save my life or would you take it? Guitar was exceptional. To both questions he could answer yes.")
I love how the themes of sacrifice and self-centredness play off each other in such a delicate balance here. Also, the theme of parental entanglement (why are all these 30- and 40-something "children" still at home?) contrasted with the dislocation from family and history is so beautifully rendered, with such rich symbolism: Ruth's breastfeeding of Milkman "until his feet touched the floor" and her own complicated and odd connection to her father; Pilate's carrying around the bones of her father ("her inheritance"--although she didn't know how literal that was); Corinthians' mid-life affair with Porter--"a pair of middle-aged lovers who behaved like teenagers."
This is a community that is so multi-layered, with real and mythological events so nuanced, that one reading of their story won't do. I need now to see if these themes pervade the rest of Morrison's work, or how they do. I wish I had first found this book in a formal academic setting; this is the kind of novel that needs to be studied carefully to wring every shred of meaning from it. In retrospect, my studies were too focused on a whole bunch of dead British authors, and the live American ones slipped by me. So I will now make up lost time, putting this one back on my shelf to be re-read and next picking up Beloved
and A Mercy