Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Review - Beloved

BelovedThis book was actually supposed to be one of the books for a class I cancelled due to scheduling conflicts. It was also listed as one of the best American novels of the past 25 years...so I kept it even after canceling the class. While it was an interesting story and a thought provoking read, I had a hard time with this book for a few different reasons.

Writing Style

The narrative was written in a close third person following very closely alongside the minds of a few main characters, Sethe primarily but also Denver, Paul D and some other characters who showed up later (Stamp & even Beloved herself). The voices used were likely fairly authentic to the voices of mid/late-1800 recently freed slaves in America. The grammar was a little mixed up at times, but generally very understandable.

The grammar wasn't as difficult to follow as the actual style of the voices themselves. Often, I was caught in a sort of stream-of-consciousness type narrative from one of the characters. Being pulled that far inside the character's head made it difficult for me to keep my bearings or perspective clear. The roundabout way subjects were treated left me confused and really slowed down the reading for me while I tried to keep the message straight. I'm not sure if this disorientation was intentional or if it's my own personal distance from this type of character that made it hard, but that was my primary complaint with the book.

Characters, Setting, Tone, etc

The characters were well created and very alive to me, especially as the book progressed. Even though the 'stream of consciousness' writing hung me up a lot, it also helped me get to know the characters better. I felt like I understood Sethe and Denver much better after getting into their heads.

The settings fluctuated back and forth for me...sometimes they felt extremely real and vivid and other times they felt very flat and clapboard/2-d.

My biggest complaint with the characters and the setting was that I often lost site of the fact that this was set in the mid-1800s in a post-civil-war/abolitionist nation just rising out of slavery. The tone of the novel was often the largest element, and that tone often didn't ring "post-civil-war" to me.

Again, it could be my distance from the subject but many times through the book, it was almost a shock to be reminded that these characters had just recently been living on a plantation as slaves. Most of the time while I was reading, my mind conjured up a more contemporary setting...people living in a poor borough in the 1900s, perhaps even the late-1900s.

Maybe that should be a compliment to the story rather than a detractor...it shows that this is a Timeless sort of tale that could easily happen 150 years ago or last week.

Themes

This novel presented a number of strong messages.

The racial message was naturally there loud and clear. It came as a strong reminder of the horrific reality that was slavery in the U.S.A...and the racism that followed after abolitionism...and even today. I loved the line where Sethe comments that she has her freedom now, but she's still not free.

That sense of freedom leads into another major theme, that of Identity. Sethe and these other ex-slaves are trying to redefine themselves in a world that has chewed them up and spit them out. Beyond the slave reference, Sethe and her family have an added stigma because of Beloved. All of the characters come face-to-face with their own identity (or lack thereof) and have to take major actions to determine what they want to become.

The other major theme that struck me was that of Family and of relations within the Family. Most of what Sethe did was for her family. She was driven to escape slavery to protect and provide a better life for her family. She ran with her kids in tow to the tool shed when the white authorities came, because she had to protect her family. She went to prison for her family. She lived alone and stigmatized in a haunted house in an effort to keep her family whole. And yet, her actions also served to drive her family apart. Her sons leave as soon as they feel physically capable of doing so. Her remaining living daughter Denver is totally estranged and practically ignored by her. Going back to the "identity" factor, Sethe hasn't really learned how to be a mother and has to learn what it means to create a family in the world she's living in.

Overall

Overall I had a hard time with this book. It was a very slow read for me, often talking itself in circles and leaving me confused. Still, I found the story very interesting and thought provoking. I felt awful for Sethe and her family and for the trials they had to endure. Even though, as I mentioned above, I felt that the 'slavery' theme often got overshadowed, I was still struck by the awful fact that slavery did exist (still exists some places in the world) and just how awful it was. Even the "good" slave owners (of "Sweet Home" where Sethe ran from) were despicable and made me shrink in shame.

It was a good book, but hard to read. I don't know how good the movie was, but if it's true enough to the book, I might recommend watching that rather than trying to push through the book.

Still, it's worth reading if only to get a new insight into the world of slavery and racism that raged (and still lingers) in America and the world.

***
3 stars

2 comments:

Karlyn said...

I bought this book about ten years ago. I still haven't read it. I read the first page and have never continued. It's funny because I love to read, and I never leave a book unfinished, no matter how bad it is, but for some reason, I just couldn't do it....maybe I was too young, maybe I will try again.

Okie said...

If you try again, I'll be curious to here how/if you like it.

I recently listened to a NY Times review of her recently released book and they heralded it as her "best work since Beloved" which strangely didn't inspire me to go pick it up.

She definitely has a following, but I must be in the wrong reading demographic to be part of that following.