Book Review: A Mercy by Toni Morrison

Jean-Paul’s Rating: 4/5 stars

“A Mercy” tells a strange tale in a strange way.  It is a short book and it is broken into titleless chapters.  Each change in chapters is also a change in voice with one of the characters taking over the storytelling.  It is a very jarring way to introduce new characters.  You end up a little bit lost as you try to figure out who’s talking and how they fit into the larger narrative.  As you get to know the characters and recognize their unique voices you end up feeling like you know them, like they are a part of you.  I am not sure if this is because of how the story is told or because of Morrison’s gift of writing.

The story takes place in colonial America around 1690 and revolves around the lives and happenings of individuals residing in a single household.  What you end up getting is six, maybe seven, different stories all coalescing into one narrative.  Most of the voices are female and most of the voices are also slaves of one variety or another.  The main character is Florens, a slave of the farm owner, Jacob Vaark.  Every odd chapter is told from Florens’ point of view with every other individual on the farm taking one of the even chapters.

The story begins with Florrens expressing her feelings to an absent and nameless blacksmith as she travels alone to his house to seek his help in curing a case of smallpox that has visited the Vaark farm.  The smallpox breakout is the plot device used to wrap up the stories of all of the characters.  We jump back and forth in time as we discover how each character came to find themselves on the Vaark farm and how all of the interpersonal relations were established.  Throughout, Morrison incorporates a variety of themes in the story including slavery, abandonment, religion, society, and being a woman in colonial America (hint: It ain’t pretty).

This is not an easy read but it is a quick read and very engaging.  You should really pick up this book.  I can’t recall ever reading a story set in America before the United States were formed so that makes this story unique as well.  Slavery existed.  Indentured servitude existed.  But there were also free black men.  You have this strange amalgam of systems that eventually coalesced into the slavery we all know and hate.  It was interesting times.  And by interesting I mean horrible.  Horrible, horrible times.