By Toni Morrison
Alfred A. Knopf
318 pp., $25
Reading a novel by Toni Morrison is an act of faith. She demands much from her language and her readers, but when that faith is rewarded, the effect is stunning.
In "Paradise," her first novel since winning the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1993, she has produced a story sure to generate volumes of feminist appraisal. This novel doesn't reach the emotional spikes of her best early work, but in a way it is more articulate than her rich, exhausting "Beloved" (1987). Oprah Winfrey has already tapped it as the next selection for her TV book club.
Reminiscent of Zora Neale Hurston's "Their Eyes Were Watching God" (1937), "Paradise" examines the residual effects of racism on the relationships among blacks, rather than between blacks and whites. The book bursts open with the first shot of a grisly assault on a women's commune by the leading citizens of the isolated town of Ruby, Okla.
Between that attack, set in 1976, and the book's conclusion just a few weeks later, Morrison stirs the long history of this mythical all-black community like a witch's brew. Racism serves as the fluid in which all the events take place, warping values and stirring the paranoia that eventually encourages conflicted men to murder the women they believe responsible for their town's decay.
In a series of swirling chapters, each named for a different woman, the author conflates the beautiful and the horrible, the past and the present. Forged in the fires of white racism and black rejection, the founders of Ruby constructed a paradise of stability and safety entirely detached from the rest of the world in 1949.
They built their homes and lives around a giant stone oven "that both nourished them and monumentalized what they had done." Inevitably the oven cools and this monument of their grandfathers' accomplishment grows irrelevant.
Some citizens find the possibility of change exciting, but the town leaders have identities and fortunes riding on the status quo. For them, Ruby is in a state of moral and physical decay, which only a radical rededication to its founding discipline can cure.
Tragically the drive to rid themselves of impurity slowly demonizes the odd group of women living outside the town in an abandoned convent.
Much of the novel tells the sad, sometimes shocking ordeals these young women endured in a misogynist world before finally stumbling upon this room of their own.
If Alice Walker's "The Color Purple" (1982) romanticized the harmonious culture of women in opposition to the contentious world of men, "Paradise" emphasizes that theme in bold italics. But Morrison is less intent on condemning the brutal, self-centered men in her novel than examining the way a history of instability has made these men fear the creative, unorthodox power of women.
At the center of the abandoned convent is the matriarchal Connie, whose doctrine of universal acceptance and unqualified compassion provides solace to women. With a strange mixture of mysticism, witchcraft, and Christianity, Connie serves as a radical alternative to the town fathers' confirmed xenophobia.
The number of characters spun through the desperate history of Ruby poses significant practical and emotional challenges for the reader. The entwined genealogy of the nine founding patriarchs produces a family tree as daunting as a street map of Los Angeles. Though it's sometimes difficult to feel attached to the individuals in this swirl of names, the effect is bewildering, bewitching, and stunning.
* Ron Charles teaches English at the John Burroughs School in St. Louis.