Beloved, by Toni Morrison. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. 275 pp. $18.95. The opening of Toni Morrison's fifth novel is deliberately uninviting - an obstacle thrown in our path that puzzles and repels. It is a household in Cincinnati, where a former slave woman named Sethe lives with her daughter Denver. The house is haunted by the ghost of a baby, Sethe's other daughter, whose headstone was inscribed with the single word, ``Beloved.'' There were two boys, Howard and Buglar, who ran away. There was a grandmother, Baby Suggs, who died. Baby's son - Sethe's husband, Halle Suggs - worked as a slave to purchase his mother's freedom. He died in the attempt to escape to his own.
It is 1873 as the story opens; but, as Sethe has come to believe, ``nothing ever dies.'' All kinds of memories - most of which she cannot bear to recall - have taken on a threatening, all but tangible, presence.
Along comes Paul D, who remembers Sethe, Halle, and Baby Suggs from years ago, when they all were slaves on a Kentucky farm called ``Sweet Home.'' The owner, Mr. Garner, was the ``best'' possible kind of slaveholder: a man who was not afraid to treat his slaves as ``men'' (not boys), who valued their opinions and cared for their welfare. After his death, his wife - well-intentioned, but weak and ailing - allowed herself to be persuaded that she could not stay alone, the only white woman in charge of six black men. With the arrival of her brother-in-law, ``schoolteacher,'' and his loathsome pair of nephews, Sweet Home is utterly transformed. The slaves are no longer men: Schoolteacher uses the ink that Sethe prepares for him to have his nephews write out lists of Sethe's characteristics under the headings of ``human'' versus ``animal.'' And even if Mr. Garner had lived, even if Sweet Home had continued to be a (relatively) good place - wouldn't it still have been the case (as Paul D muses years later) that a slave could have been a man only just as long as his master agreed to call him one?
After so many years, after so much that he and she have separately suffered, Paul D wants to build a future with Sethe. To do so, he is willing for them to share the painful memories each has locked inside. But there are serious obstacles: Young Denver resents Paul D, afraid he will push out the ghost of her sister. And the ghost does seem to have been chased off, when a mysterious young black woman with unlined hands and soft feet suddenly turns up. Her name is ``Beloved.'' She is vague, lethargic, weak, hungry for sweet things - and filled with a bottomless craving for attention and love.
The story builds in sheer suspenseful intensity. It generates ever-widening circles of moral significance. Like William Faulkner - but in a style that is simpler, purer, more finely disciplined - Toni Morrison has constructed her powerful narrative on the cadences of contending voices, the murmur of words thought but unspoken, and the circling motion of memory as it edges slowly but inexorably nearer to the things most deeply buried in oblivion. Returning again and again to haunted ground, each time the narrative uncovers a little more of the past. But this ``primal scene'' of revelation is not the Freudian image of the sexual act, but the scene of a crime that negates the bonds of family and freezes the wellsprings of love.
A cluster of words and images becomes a group of stories. They are terse at first, but gradually open up to reveal the full extent of their significance: Paul D's memory of a bit in his mouth, of envying a rooster freer than he was, of his bondage on a Georgia chain gang - and of the trail of blossoming trees he followed north one spring to find his freedom. For Sethe, there is her own back, still bearing the lash-inflicted pattern of a chokecherry tree; the kindness of a poor white girl who helped her give birth to her baby on her harrowing flight to freedom; and the story she repeats the most, which provides a key to this novel's great and grave theme: how schoolteacher's nephews held her down and stole her milk. This is the milk Sethe was bringing to her baby daughter in Ohio. It is the love she has for her daughter, her kinship with her daughter. Slavery as theft of kinship, of freedom, of the ability to love, of ``the milk of human kindness,'' and of humanity itself is the dominant theme of this novel. Its many motifs form a chain of associations that is subtly and beautifully counterpointed by the struggle of Sethe, Denver, Paul D, and the other characters to reassert their dignity and their ability to love. A stunning book and a lasting achievement, ``Beloved'' transforms the sorrows of history into the luminous truth of art.
Merle Rubin is a free-lance book reviewer.