I haven’t yet indulged this fact on Rachael’s Reads, but I am a member of a feminist book club. It’s very recent phenomenon, founded by the wonderful Abby Erchak who I would tag were she a blogger. As yet, there have only been 3 meetings and 2 featured books.
Say what you like about feminism and its place in today’s society, but Feminist Book Club is fun. Really fun. For the last meeting we even initiated the new policy of bringing snacks. I brought strawberries and Nutella in the hope its sexual connotations might steer the conversation towards double standards vis-à-vis feminine sensuality.
Just kidding, I brought them because strawberries are really tasty.
Moving on to the topic at hand: last week we discussed Toni Morrison’s Beloved, published in 1987 and winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1988. The book is described as: “…faithfully and forcefully [reflecting] Robert Kennedy’s purposes – his concern for the poor and the powerless, his struggle for honest and even-handed justice, his conviction that a decent society must assure all young people a fair chance, and his faith that a free democracy can act to remedy disparities of power and opportunity.
What I had been expecting: Long, harrowing descriptions of slaves working brutal trades, instances of desperate female suffering and an out an out exhausting read.
What I got: A ghost story (… although indeed with a generous dash of female suffering).
The story revolves around a mother, Sethe, and her daughter, Denver. A black woman living during the mid-1800s, Sethe grew up as a slave on a small farm in Kentucky where she meets Halle, another slave. They marry and have four children.
Slavery, it turns out, was not abolished in one fell swoop but gradually, from state to state, the Southern states relinquishing their possession of the black population long after the Northern states. During this transition, slaves travelled from the south to the north in order to claim their freedom. These clandestine escapes were perilous in many ways, not least because their masters might take up pursuit.
Sethe undertakes one such journey northwards to the free state of Ohio. She sends her three children ahead without her and follows soon after, pregnant with the fourth. By a miracle she makes it there- giving birth on the way!- but her master eventually follows her and finds Sethe at her new home, insisting (apparently with legal impunity) that she and her children return to the farm. Distraught at the thought of her children being sanctioned to same life of slavery as herself, she kills her two-year-old daughter.
This baby is the ghost of the story. Its interference ranges from minor disturbances to physical abuse. But when a past admirer comes back into Sethe’s life with the promise of commitment and support, the baby’s ghost takes physical form and arrives at the household as a seemingly vulnerable young girl.
It’s eerie, but truth be told I was relieved to find that what could have simply been a novel jam-packed with gruesome human suffering had such an intriguing twist. In terms of content, its riveting. Beloved is hugely original, spooky and sensitive at the same time. The reoccurrence of the supernatural, admittedly, surprised me. If I’m honest with myself, the fact that I already knew the subject matter to be so serious and its accolades so prestigious made me assume that Beloved would be stodgy realist fiction. Ghosts aren’t serious. Haunted houses aren’t Pulitzer worthy.
As it turns out, they are, and I was mistaken.
At times, unfortunately, it is difficult to understand exactly what’s happening in the narrative. The characters’ names are weirdly confusing for the first part of the book (the fact that the Grandmother is called ‘Baby Suggs’ threw me for at least two chapters) and Morrison doesn’t make it easy for us to follow the story. One of the girls at our book club had already read Beloved as a literary text for school and reported to us that she was pleased this time around to have actually understood what was going on. Nobody at the book club seemed 100% sure how to summarise the story.
Beloved wasn’t the easiest or most enjoyable read by any stretch of the imagination. We spent a mere half an hour discussing the book before moving onto more interesting topics, such as Donald Trump and the average day working on the phones for Planned Parenthood. I would conclude by saying that for many reasons (and if you really feel like using your brain), Beloved is worth a read. What might be better advice, however, is to read it, accepting that it’s a weird and difficult book, and then re-read it some years later; apparently things really slot into place the second time around!
On the other hand, if you don’t have time for that, there’ll always be strawberries and Nutella.