Book Review: Beloved by Toni Morrison

Posted October 20, 2013 by LeahAdmin in Reviews / 25 Comments

Book Review: Beloved by Toni Morrison
Beloved by Toni Morrison
Published by Vintage on 1987
Pages: 324
Genres: Fiction
Format: Paperback
Source: Purchased

I’m not quite sure how to talk about this book. It’s been sitting on my shelf for over a year, and I can’t tell you how many times I’ve thought, “yeah, I’ll read that next,” only to guiltily pull something else from my shelf when the time came. It’s no secret that I’ve felt intimidated by the work of this Nobel laureate. Everyone has told me that yes, Morrison’s books are complex and layered, but even if you don’t catch 100% of the references, they’re amazing stories and not difficult to read.

I finally got up the nerve to read Beloved for Banned Books Week. (Yes, that was almost a month ago, but I’m having as much trouble figuring out what to say about this book as I had trying to pick it up.) I really struggled with it at first. For the first 50 pages or so, I felt confused and disoriented. I wondered whether it would get “better,” easier, and it did. It took a while, but I finally settled into a world that Morrison evokes really powerfully. And I loved it.

I have no idea, though, where to start my discussion of Beloved. Similar to the way Morrison drops you right into the middle of things at the beginning of the novel, I can’t see a clear starting place to begin this “review.” I suppose I’ll try giving the bare bones?

Sethe is an escaped slave living in Ohio with her daughter, Denver. Although the house she lives in was once a bustling home with frequent visitors, it is now haunted by the ghost of her baby who died before even being named. The only thing Sethe could afford to have inscribed on her tombstone is the word “Beloved.”

Okay, that was easy enough, but how do I talk about the beautiful girl named Beloved who turns up one day and is accepted into their home; the arrival of Paul D, a fellow former slave from the plantation Sethe lived on; the way Sethe and those around her are haunted by the infanticide she committed against her tiny unnamed baby? Do I even talk about the fact that Sethe killed her own baby to save her from the men rounding up runaway slaves, that she would rather see her child dead than a slave? How do I talk about the way she is plagued by memories of her life as a slave, and the horrible experiences Paul D suffered in the South? Is it enough to just ask these questions?

Weeks have passed since I finished this book, and I still can’t figure out how to lay out the “plot.” I think it’s important to talk about Beloved, though, despite my inability to form coherent thoughts about it. I can speak more about the way it made me feel and think about than what actually happens in the book. First of all, this is an incredibly powerful, dark, emotionally exhausting novel. It’s fragmented and brutal, a gothic ghost story.

Beloved is about loss, desperation, love, and the ghosts that haunt and enslave us. It’s about motherhood and making choices that are absolutely unthinkable. It’s about trying to accept the actions of others (or yourself) in truly impossible situations.

I didn’t know what to expect going into this novel, but I was blown away by it. My feelings about Beloved are hard to articulate, but I was so impressed by the fierce, almost elemental power of Morrison’s writing. I loved the sheer depth of her storytelling and the poetry of her words. I’m glad I finally read this book, and I’m looking forward to reading the other Morrison book on my shelf, Sula. It probably won’t be soon, but I like knowing it’ll be there when I’m ready for it.

This was my fourth book read for The Classics Club.

  • I had the same feelings about Morrison´s A Mercy. I loved it, but when asked why, I couldn´t find the words to describe it. I think you have to read her books more than once to understand the full complexity.

  • I haven’t read this in forever and ever and your review makes me want to do so 🙂

  • Hmmm – I am definitely interested now!

  • I’ve been wanting to read Beloved for a long time (it’s sitting on my shelf too, waiting), but like you, I keep picking up other books instead. Hopefully I’ll get to it soon because it sounds great. I’ve read Sula, by the way (had to read it in high school), and I really enjoyed it. I hope you do too!

  • I’ve actually never read Morrison (I know, I know) and have had this exact book on MY shelf for years and guiltily pull other books down. Sigh. One of these days 🙂 Glad you finally got around to reading it, though!

  • Leah, the first time I read Morrison (and I don’t remember which book it was) I came away with similar feelings. You have done a beautiful job of sharing your reactions and telling us what Morrison is capable of doing with words. Isn’t that what a review really is all about? You make me want to read some of Morrison’s books again! Loved this so much! Well written, and beautifully thought out. 🙂

  • Reblogged this on Found Between the Covers and commented:
    Leah of Books Speaks Volumes has written one of the most expressive book reviews I’ve ever read. Take a moment to hope over to her blog and read her thoughts about Toni Morrison’s Beloved.

  • I think you did a great job writing about a book that is definitely hard to write about.

    I love Toni Morrison so much.

  • Love this review. I’ve been wanting to read this book for such a long time and you’ve definitely moved it up my list.

  • After I read this review, I pulled out Morrison’s THe Bluest Eye (“In a land that loves its blond, blue-eyed children, who weeps for the dreams of a black girl”) and remembered the haunting story I read in college. Beloved obviously has the same tone: riveting and real. Great review, Leah!

  • I just finished Jazz for class and loved it. I want to read Beloved when I get a chance. She’s a powerful writer.

  • I had to read this for an English class and didn’t like it very much, but I think that might be the “if it’s work, I don’t like it” syndrome which can make so many of us hate the classics we read for school. Hopefully I’ll get around to giving it another chance sometime 🙂

  • Absolutely awesome post, Leah!

  • Morrison is just worthy of awe–I don’t event know how else to say it. I read Beloved in high school, and I don’t think I had the capacity to really “get” it back then, but I do intend to re-read it. I have since read The Bluest Eye and really loved it, and I picked up Sula and Song of Solomon this past weekend. Hurray!

  • I haven’t read this book in years, I would love to revisit it at some point.

  • Great review! Something I still want to read!

  • Isi

    I haven’t read any of the books by this author, but I really want to try. It will be in Spanish, just in case.
    I think I will also start with Beloved; I like what you have said about it 🙂

    • Good luck! It’s kind of challenging, but it’s so good!

  • anu

    Despite all your confusion you have made the story so clear and enticing 🙂 Would love to read it soon. And by my personal experience the more you avoid a book, the better it turns out to be. Abandoned Idiot by Fyodor Dostoyevsky thrice in favor of lighter reads but finally finished it and now it is one of my favorites.

    • I only read your review til you mention the ghost, because now I know I need to read Beloved! Thanks for calling my attention on it, it was not one of Morrison’s top books to read, but it is now 🙂

    • Such an honest and emotive response to Beloved. You reacted with so much trepidation to the story, and yet you were unafraid to share your emotions with us. You have asked so many questions – will they ever be answered. If you have time, won’t you read my latest post on Beloved. Perhaps we will return to share similar expressions on reading. I shall follow your blog.

      Oh, you said; a gothic ghost story. Well, there we have it then.

  • I completely agree with you about this novel and it’s ability to tie your tongue! I think that is the main point of BELOVED that it hinges on these intense feelings of the characters as we watch them try to make sense of their past. Their past was less like a story (even though they speak of “storytelling”) and more like a bombarding of feelings. wave after wave of nostalgia so thick that she can’t even get through telling her daughter but she does find it easier to communicate these feelings and stories to Paul D because he lived it, he understood when she talked about these people all the feeling associated with them that she couldn’t tell her daughter because she didn’t even want to plant a seedling of this pain into Denver’s head and what’s more face them herself. Sethe also finds she is able to communicate these stories to Beloved but that is because Beloved is tethered to her through this pain she is carrying and she can get through telling her because Beloved can understand when Sethe speaks in unfinished sentences, when Sethe gets choked up on the words and they come out her eyes or the heat from her body Beloved understands where Denver would only be alarmed that her mother is crying or upset and possibly not grasp these feelings that sometimes can only be expressed in color, like when Paul D first walks into the house.

  • I had to read this when I saw you posted it on Twitter—Beloved has been my favorite book since high school. It’s beautiful, difficult, powerful, horrifying, and so, so, SO important. I’m so very glad you loved it, too.

    I picked up Sula on Amazon when it was on sale for the Kindle. You just reminded me to check it out.

  • Joseph Fountain

    Great review. I also had difficulty figuring out what I wanted to say about this. It evokes so many thoughts and emotions it seems futile to try and summarize in a few paragraphs. My review: