“The island exaggerated everything. Too much light. Too much shadow. Too much rain. Too much foliage and much too much sleep.”- Toni Morrison, Tar Baby
I think the tropical Caribbean setting and all the talk of candy and flowers fooled me into thinking that this would be one of Toni Morrison’s simpler reads. It turns out that like with most Toni Morrison books, it’s impossible to summarize everything; there’s just too much to talk about.
In this novel we meet retired rich American Valerian Street living on the L’Isle des Chevaliers with his much younger wife, Margaret, two African-American servants and their niece, Jadine, who is visiting from France. A sailor, Son, who has abandoned ship, enters their lives and that’s when things get interesting. I read this book as a story of many tensions, tensions between couples, tensions about old secrets, race, responsibilities, and dreams.
For me, the most important character in this book is Jadine. I always like the rebel women and I think she is exactly that. Unlike the other women portrayed in this book, she’s not portrayed as maternal at all; additionally she has unique dreams and aspirations and doesn’t feel the need at all to fall back into the traditional ways of thinking. Out of all the women in the book, she seems to be the only one not willing to be limited by her gender and race. When she says to herself, “…but if you think you can get away with telling me what a black woman is or ought to be…”, well that really spoke to me on so many levels, as I’m sure it will speak to a lot of black women. Jadine is a light-skinned black woman, called “yalla” by the local islanders, seen of as prim and proper because she lives in France and is a fashion model. Son thinks she’s a sell-out, and Jadine struggles with her thoughts on her identity as a black woman, her white boyfriend in France, having a white patron, and feeling more comfortable in white culture as that was where she was raised. When she thinks about her boyfriend in France, this is what goes through her mind, thoughts on potential fetishization and “authenticity”:
“I wonder if the person he wants to marry is me or a black girl? And if it isn’t me he wants, but any black girl who looks like me, talks and acts like me, what will happen when he finds out that I hate ear hoops, that I don’t have to straighten my hair, that Mingus puts me to sleep, that sometimes I want to get out of my skin and be only the person inside-not American- not black-just me?”
I felt for Jadine thinking that she might be a race traitor for wanting to go back to France instead of moving back to the States. I had supportive feelings towards Jadine throughout the book because I’ve often been accused of not being black enough and I think that it’s important for more people to note that as black women our upbringings are diverse, as are our temperaments, personalities, interests and everything else. As such, Son’s treatment of Jadine’s perceived lack of blackness really really irked me because I’ve been on that receiving end, although not as harshly. And Son seems to be the opposite, very rooted in and connected to his blackness and you wonder whether a relationship between him and Jadine could ever work out, so it was a surprise to me that they embarked on a relationship (and I wonder what that says about Son). Their love story was so very intense:
“Gradually she came to feel unorphaned. He cherished and safeguarded her. When she woke in the night from an uneasy dream she had only to turn and there was the stability of his shoulder and his limitless, eternal chest. No part of her was hidden from him. She wondered if she should hold back, keep something in store from him, but he opened the hair on her head with his fingers and drove his tongue through the part. There was nothing to forgive, nothing to win and the future was five minutes away. He unorphaned her completely. Gave her a brand-new childhood. They were the last lovers in New York City—the first in the world—so their passion was inefficient and kept no savings account. They spent it like Texans.”
I was very intrigued about how place plays a part not just in a story but also in a relationship. On a tropical island everything seems idyllic but after reading this book it’s clear that running off to a tropical island isn’t going to solve our problems and we will end up bringing our baggage with us. And this also got me thinking about how a relationship started in one place and moved elsewhere works. When Son goes back to the States the way he describes his home is so different to what we have seen in the Caribbean and it makes you wonder how things will change for him and Jadine on a different backdrop:
“Since 1971 Son had been seeing the United States through the international edition of Time, by way of shortwave radio and the views of other crewmen. It seemed sticky. Loud, red and sticky. Its fields spongy, its pavements slick with the blood of all the best people.”
I have to mention the wife, Margaret, who really annoyed me . I see her as the non-black friend of a black person who feels as though she has somehow earned the right to make disparaging comments about black people. She can’t possibly be racist because, after all, she has a black friend. Some of the comments that came out of Margaret’s mouth were so foul. I wish Jadine had been stronger and told her off instead of keeping her thoughts to herself:
“She was uncomfortable with the way Margaret stirred her into blackening up or universaling out, always alluding to or ferreting out what she believed were racial characteristics. She ended by resisting both, but it kept her alert about things she did not wish to be alert about.”
This was a great reread and I loved it considerably more this time around. I understood more and I always get renewed appreciation for how Morrison helps us understand why her characters are the way they are but never expects us to side with them.