Valerian and Margaret Street, retired millionaire and his ex-beauty queen wife, and Sydney and Ondine Childs, their longtime black butler and cook, stand as the corners of an intricate cat's cradle of dependence and tension in Toni morrison's new novel.
Caught in this cradle is Jadine, niece of Sydney and Ondine. Educated at the Sorbonne, courtesy of Valerian, and successful as a model in Paris and New york, she is an irresistible tar baby provocateur.
Wildness and control vie throughout this novel. Valerian has put old money to a new use at his home, wrested from a lush hillside on the Caribbean Isle des Chevaliers. The family candy business never held his attention as does his greenhouse filled with non-native blooms. His wife longs to return to Philadelphia and gets muddled by the simplest tasks but makes elaborate plans for a visit by their son.
This son never does turn up, for reasons we discover, but Son does. A black American fugitive, Son has been creeping about the home and grounds for days. Upon his discovery, Valerian, to the household's surprise and concern, has a dinner place set and the guest room prepared. Jadine, who is employee, family, and guest all at once, longs to be known as herself and not as mere exotica. Son falls in love with her.
Toni Morrison, whose "Song of Solomon" won a National Book Critics Circle Award, has said she is interested in "talking to the tribe itself." If she sees a common black experience she also in "Tar Baby" sees the widely divergent ways blacks have embraced this experience. Of Jadine and Son she writes, directly to the reader: "One had a past, the other a future and each one bore the culture to save the race in his hands. Mama-spoiled black man, will you mature with me" Culture-bearing black woman, whose culture are you bearing?"
It is well-groomed characters who use the few instances of rough language in this novel, and this occurs in their private thoughts since they know it would offend if spoken. The one time such language is spoken, it does indeed bring disapproval.
Readers will discover several biblical allusions including a thrice-repeated questioning of love and Valerian's willfull innocence in the tropical garden home.
Toni Morrison, an editor at Random House, has Valerian reading "only mail these days, having given up books because the language in them had changed so much --stained with rivulets of disorder and meaninglessness." This book has no such weaknesses. The love story may curl away from the employer/employee drama but the questions of order and control in male/female relationships and racial relationships press the stories in the same direction.
Disillusion and disappointment are more obvious than triumph in this novel. The two characters who have vented their anger are paying for it. No one struggles in islation. Son tells Jadine: "Imagine yourself in that dark, all alone in the sky at night. Nobody is around you. You are by yourself, just shining there. You know how a star is supposed to twinkle? We say twinkle because that is how it looks, but when a star feels itself, it's not a twinkle, it's more like a throb. Star throbs. Over and over and over. Like this. Stars just throb and throb and throb and sometimes, when they can't throb anymore, when they can't hold it anymore, they fall out o f the sky."
This novel throbs in a black sky.