A Mercy

Early American life was punishing. The scythe of sickness has never been sharper in this country, the fickleness of crops quite so lethal. Everyone involved in the “settlement” suffered, especially when smallpox epidemics scorched through towns and villages. In her meditatively hopeful new novel, set on a Virginia farm in the 1690s as pox rages like a fire, Toni Morrison reminds that in these horrific conditions the tenderness of humans could cross boundaries one might assume were unbreachable at the time.

Like her Pulitzer Prize–winning masterpiece, Beloved, this novel revolves around a mother’s agonizing sacrifice. A Dutch trader named Jacob Vaark travels to a Virginia plantation to collect on a debt. Lacking funds, the borrower offers Vaark flesh — a trade Vaark is disinclined to accept. Men whose fortunes rest upon the backs of forced labor are weak, he feels. But then a woman steps forward and pleads with him to accept her daughter. “Please, Senhor. Not me,” she asks him. “Take her. Take my daughter.”

A Mercy could have taken a lurid turn here — as in life it perhaps often did — but Morrison steers her novel in a more unexpected direction. Vaark, we learn, is moved to accept the girl because he, too, was an orphan once. He remembered “well and his own sad teeming in the markets, lanes, alleyways and ports of every region he traveled.” The girl, whose name is Florens, is also not the first one he has taken in. If his wife’s children continue to die shortly after their births, she might not be his last.

The arrival of the girl on Vaark’s farm immediately alters the ecology of relationships that have developed there. Lina, a Native American slave, takes Florens in and protects her. Sorrow, a hardworking foundling who has arrived in Vaark’s care already raped and ill, becomes jealous of her preferred treatment. A blacksmith desires Florens; she reciprocates with a passion that is almost feral. In the end, after Vaark dies of the pox, his wife puts her life in Florens’s black hands.

As in so many Morrison novels, especially the later ones, readers must work to assemble this narrative. It unfolds out of order, piecemeal, alternating from character to character, some of whom, like Florens, speak directly to the reader. Others Morrison speaks for in her magisterial third person.

It was William Faulkner who laid bare the possibilities of this storytelling method in The Sound and the Fury. Jolting the reader from character to character meant a narrative could arise in the background, within the relationships between its characters. Excepting Louise Erdrich, no American novelist has grasped the spooky logic of how to tell a story this way quite like Morrison.

There are risks, however, to this narrative method, ones to which A Mercy falls prey dismayingly often. In the opening pages it is difficult to understand who is speaking, who is being observed by whom. One needs to read on to sort out such minor mysteries, but Morrison soon replaces them with new ones.

Florens’s sections, which address an offstage “you,” like a love letter or lyric poem, describe a journey through the woods of some urgency. Is she escaping? Is she returning to her mother? Morrison doesn’t unpack this enigma until the book is two-thirds done. To put these questions on hold in the mind while pushing deeper into A Mercy requires far more than suspending disbelief. It means the reader must have absolute faith in Morrison as a storyteller.

She has certainly earned this trust. In Beloved and Song of Solomon she crafted unquestionable masterpieces about the bonds of motherhood. Love and Jazz evoked the fine line between passion’s refining fire and its destructive blazes. In her characters’ voices we often hear the singular sound of American language.

Morrison is also — one cannot say this often enough — a beautiful writer. Like Michael Ondaatje, who possesses a similar disdain for linear narrative, Morrison understands that if she is going to make her readers travel sideways, it is only fair to give them lights to stumble by. “When the women faded,” she writes in A Mercy, describing how ghosts come to visit Vaark’s wife after she falls into a fever, “it was the moon that stared back like a worried friend in a sky the texture of a lady’s ball gown.”

Before his wife took ill, Vaark decided to build himself a large mansion, an ominous act of hubris described through Lina’s eyes: “That third and presumably final house that Sir insisted on building distorted sunlight and required the death of fifty trees.” Vaark, who prided himself on living within the confines of nature, on not becoming a slave driver, couldn’t help but overstep.

What happens next — disease spreading like wildfire, some of the farm being spared, some of it not — feels like punishment for Vaark’s presumption. But it’s not a connection a reader easily makes (and not until finishing the book), since Morrison forces the reader to spend so much time sorting out the story, unraveling connections that needn’t be so mysterious. Perfected in Beloved, used adeptly in Love and Jazz, Morrison’s narrative braid here simply feels needlessly complex.

It’s an odd mistake in a novel that is, at the root, meant to be about shared burdens, about how there were many different forms of slavery at that time. Vaark’s wife, for instance, travels to America to a husband she does not know, aboard a vessel not much nicer than the ships in which slaves were transported . Her father has essentially sold her to a stranger. Upon arrival, she shares something with many women at the time, even those of a different faith.

“The promise and threat of men. Here, they agreed, was where security and risk lay?. Some, like Lina, who had experienced both deliverance and destruction at their hands, withdrew. Some, like Sorrow, who apparently was never coached by other females, became their play. Some like her shipmates fought them. Others, the pious, obeyed them. And a few, like herself, after a mutually loving relationship, became like children when the man was gone.”

In this sense, if A Mercy begins with a mother’s agonizing sacrifice, it becomes a story because a man provides the act that gives the book its title. These were the gender dynamics of the time. As the story expands, slaves who are white, Native American, black, and emotionally bound pass this gesture back and forth. At a moment when America may be about to elect its first black president, Morrison has given us a fable about an America in which the divisions that almost became calcified were trumped by the basic human need for survival. It is a brief, bone-hard, magically affecting tale — tangled, but powerful enough that it never has to ask the question: what if it had always been so?