A Mercy- Toni Morrison


“In short, 1682 and Virginia was still a mess. Who could keep up with the pitched battles for God, king and land?“- Toni Morrison, A Mercy

It’s been a very busy month but I’ve somehow managed to keep my Morrison-a-month reading streak alive. It’s hard to say new things about Morrison’s writing in this review that I haven’t said in my others, but it’s a fact that Morrison always manages to bring a period of history to life, by not just using dry facts, but also by telling people’s stories, sharing their thoughts, and their experiences. I love stories about bravery and survival, and stories like this one show me how people have used their resolve and adaptability to survive.

The book is set in the 17th Century in the Americas, in a place with a mixture of freeborn people, slaves, and settlers from different European countries. I rarely read about the Dutch in North America so this was an interesting perspective. I kept thinking about how stressful it must have been, and I was reminded of Marlon James’ “The Book of Night Women“, a book that showed me that among the different Europeans in the Americas there was also a racial hierarchy, and they had different ways of doing things, reacting to, and interacting with, each other.

One thing I thought about more this time were families and relationships that arose out of necessity.We have engaged Dutch girl Rebekka in the ship making friends with prostitutes and other women she would never have made friends with in Europe. We also see unrelated slaves forming a sort of family too. The New World is a strange place where different types of people are flung together, and it just seems like the women recognize their mutual dependency on each other, whether they like it or not. I felt the experiences and fears of the various women in this book were the strongest part of this story:

“Don’t die, Miss. Don’t. Herself, Sorrow, a newborn and maybe Florens- three unmastered women and an infant out here, alone, belonging to no one, became wild game for anyone. None of them could inherit; none was attached to a church or recorded in its books. Female and illegal, they would be interlopers, squatters, if they stayed on after Mistress died, subject to purchase, hire, assault, abduction, exile.”
There’s so much sadness in this book, and a sense of isolation. For myself, living in North America over 400 years after this book was set, it’s really difficult to imagine how life must have been like at the beginning of America’s history.

12 thoughts on “A Mercy- Toni Morrison

  1. That was a difficult read for me. I’ve always known intellectually that women had it hard in those days, being unable to inherit land, or make their own way in the world, but this dramatized it so clearly and strongly, it makes you wonder how any women survived. One of those life-changing reads for me.

    1. Sorry for the delay in responding! Yes, it really affected me too, thinking about how women have suffered throughout history (and continue to suffer). I really loved how the women supported each other, and I think that’s one of the ways we’ve been able to survive and thrive

  2. This sounds like a great book, complex and thoughtful (as it seems all Morrison’s books are). I like how you describe the interconnections and dependencies between women. A positive moment in an otherwise grim situation. Perhaps we still have something to learn from that. Lovely review.

  3. Oh, I love that you referenced Marlon James’s Book of Night Women, which I read a few months ago and loved. It made me really feel the social hierarchies among white people too. A Mercy is on my TBR. A lovely review, Rowena!

    1. So sorry for the delay in responding, Laila! New job is keeping me very busy. I’m glad you loved the James book as well, it’s definitely one of my favourites. Looking forward to hearing what you think of this one:)

  4. Oh thanks for reviewing this and reminding me I have it on the shelf, and also The Book of Night Woman, perhaps I should read them together. A novella sounds like a good idea at present since i only managed to read 2 books in Sept!

  5. I haven’t read this yet, but a friend of mine read this and said that she thought the writing felt a little non-Toni-ish. Did you get that sense at all? Found it a bit challenging to get through. Did you feel this way at all?

    I did love The Book of Night Women by the way. A great page turner.

    1. Hi Marti! I know what you mean. This is her second to last novel and I find her last 2 novels to have been, language-wise, not as difficult to understand as her first ones. Still, I did like this story a lot.

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