Reviewed by Julie Failla Earhart
It’s been five years since the Noble Prize in Literature (1993) winner, Toni Morrison, released her last book. A Mercy is the new book from one of America’s most influential writers and is in of itself a publishing event.
Like Beloved, A Mercy is set in the American past–1680s and 1690s. That’s all I could figure out the first time I read this new endeavor. About halfway through this short novel–a novella really at one hundred and sixty-nine pages–I was able to determine that there are multiple narrators.
Yes, there is some beautiful writing; some of the prose is plain ol’ gorgeous. However, great sentences alone don’t make up a worthwhile read. And I don’t understand what the hype is all about. I know that other critics and reviewers are raving about A Mercy, but I had a tough time with it. It wasn’t until I read a review in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and reader reviews on Amazon.com, did I truly understand the story.
The plot revolves around a trader/framer, Jacob Vaark, who has gone to collect payment at a Virginia plantation. The planter has fallen on hard times and cannot pay Jacob. He offers him a slave, which he does not wish to accept. However, the woman offers him her daughter, Florens, which he reluctantly accepts as companionship for his wife, Rebekkah, after the death of their daughter, Patrician. Jacob returns to Maryland, where he is building a succession of magnificent homes. Before the third one can be complete, Jacob dies from the pox and then Rebekkah contracts it.
The story is narrated by a slave, Lina, a Native American, and by Florens, the young woman Jacob took as payment. Rebekkah sends Florens after a blacksmith who is fluent in herbal remedies. Florens comes back from her journey covered in blood. Why, I never could fathom.
I did figure out that the title, A Mercy, meant that Florens’s life with Jacob and Rebekkah was much, much better than her life would have been if she had stayed on the plantation. I was disappointed in this work.
Armchair Interviews says: Morrison seemed to miss the mark on this one.