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3.9 out of 5 stars
A Mercy
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71 of 75 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon November 15, 2008
Format: Hardcover
Finally a novel that lives up to the publisher's hype. So much is promised with each new book, but this is truly a fine work. I am unable to judge whether this is great literature, but it satisfied me on many levels. That is a rare occurrence for a piece of writing. I have given five stars to prior reviews, but this is the finest writing that I have yet reviewed for amazon.

The novel reads quickly. You could finish it in a few hours if you were so inclined. I preferred to slow down and savor the contents. I will return this book again, after giving it a season on my shelf. It will never go to the library donation pile in my lifetime! Although I may be a bibliophile, in the extreme I would preserve only a few (hundred) books. This will be one of them.

Morrison uses shifting points of view to bring this short novel to life. The story unfolds through the eyes of each major character, although only one, Florens, speaks in the first person. Her voice is entirely in a vernacular, lacking conventional punctuation and sentence structure. The first few pages are moderately difficult to understand, but it becomes steadily more intelligible as you progress. The varied points of view remind me of The Sound and the Fury, especially in the opening chapter. But Florens is no Benjy, and Morrison's narrative bears only a superficial resemblance to Faulkner's. Although there is plenty of sorrow, and broken relationships all around, there is not a tone of hopeless cynicism.

I went back to read the first chapter several times, discovering more each time. You cannot understand some things at first. For example: "If a pea hen refuses to brood I read it quickly and sure enough that night I see a minha mae standing hand in hand with her little boy, my shoes jamming the pocket of her apron." This is a pivotal moment, but I did not recognize it as such on a first read. Sometimes I don't care for writers who show things early, and explain them later. Morrison is such a good writer that I didn't mind at all. I don't think that you will mind either.

I do not call Morrison a feminist or black writer. I believe those words will put unreasonable limits on how I might think about her work. Her writing reaches beyond the narrow concerns of our present day, to universal truths. She does not gloss over the brutalities and prejudices of slavery, or the lot of women in the 17th century. Far from it. But there are even larger things at stake here. In A Mercy I met myself where I least expected. I recognized myself in Florens, in Lina, in Jacob and even in Sorrow. To see yourself in another is the beginning of love. To give that gift to a reader is a great achievement.
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87 of 94 people found the following review helpful
Format: Hardcover
(4.5 stars) Continuing themes that she has been developing since the start of her career, Nobel Prize-winning author Toni Morrison creates an intense and involving philosophical, Biblical, and feminist novel set in the Atlantic colonies between 1682 and 1690. Her impressionistic story traces slavery from its early roots, using unique voices--African, Native American, and white--while moving back and forth in time. The primary speaker is Florens, a 16-year-old African slave, who tells the reader at the outset that this is a confession, "full of curiosities," and that she has committed a bloody, once-in-a-lifetime crime. In a flashback to 1682, we learn that when Florens was only eight years old, her mother suggested to the Maryland planter who owned the family, that Florens be given to New York farmer Jacob Vaark to settle a debt. Florens never understands why she was abandoned by her mother.

Florens lives and works for the next eight years on Vaark's rural New York farm. Lina, a Native American, who works with her, tells in a parallel narrative how she became one of a handful of survivors of a plague that killed her tribe. Vaark's wife Rebekkah describes leaving England for New York to be married to a man she has never seen. The deaths of their subsequent children are devastating, and Vaark is hoping that eight-year-old Florens will help alleviate Rebekkah's loneliness. Vaark, himself an orphan and poorhouse survivor, describes his journeys from New York to Maryland and Virginia, commenting on the role of religion in the culture of the different colonies, along with their attitudes toward slavery.

All these characters are bereft of their roots, struggling to survive in an alien environment filled with danger and disease. When smallpox threatens Rebekkah's life in 1692, Florens, now sixteen, is sent to find a black freedman who has some knowledge of herbal medicines. Her journey is dangerous, ultimately proving to be the turning point in her life.

Morrison examines the roots of racism going back to slavery's earliest days, providing glimpses of the various religious practices of the time, and showing how all the women are victimized. They are "of and for men," people who "never shape the world, The world shapes us." As the women journey toward self-enlightenment, Morrison describes their progress in often Biblical cadences, and by the end of this novel, the reader understands what "a mercy" really means. An intense and thought-provoking look at various forms of slavery from their beginnings, this short novel has an epic scope, one which admirers of Morrison will celebrate for its intense thematic development, even as they may somewhat regret its sacrifice of fully developed characters. Mary Whipple

Sula
Beloved
Jazz
Song of Solomon (Oprah's Book Club)
Love: A Novel
Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination
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56 of 60 people found the following review helpful
Format: Hardcover
In this short, lyrical and gripping novel, Tony Morrison has undertaken, once again, to explore her favorite subject: the evils of slavery. Written in prose so lovely and mesmerizing that it reminded me of her "Sula", also a short novel, published thirty-five years ago, "A Mercy" was a great joy to read.

Jacob Vaark, a Dutch-born farmer and trader, and Rebekka, his English wife own a tobacco plantation. Even though Jacob owned a few slaves, he did so only as a necessity to run his homestead. Jacob is sympathetic towards orphans and waifs because he himself was parentless at a young age, and had to fend for himself on the streets running small errands.

At the heart of the novel is an act of mercy. When Jacob Vaark travels to Maryland to collect debt from a tobacco plantaion owner named Senor D'Ortega, he finds out that Senor is broke and has no money to pay off the debt. Senor offers Jacob a thin black girl named Florens, a daughter of one of his slaves, as a partial payment of the debt. Florens is smart, and she can read and write also. Florens' mother senses that Jacob is more kind-hearted than her master, and so pleads with Senor to give Florens to Jacob. Her hope is that Florens would have a better life in Jacob's estate. Florens's mother considers this an act of mercy, but the irony is that Florence considers it abandonment.

Several sympathetic characters make the novel interesting and hold a reader's attention. Lina (Messalina), a native American, was sold to Jacob by the Presbytarians who had rescued and saved her. Sorrow, a sea captain's daughter, survives a ship wreck, but ends up in Jacob's plantation as a slave. Willard and Scully are indentured servants who are sent to work at Jacob's plantation by their contract holders. A young black man, a blacksmith, arrives to make an iron gate for Jacob's new house. He is not a slave, but a free man. This man is also knowledgeable about medicinal herbs. Florens falls in love with him.

In this novel Toni Morrison has found her ability to write simple, unadorned and lyrical prose that she mysteriously lost when she wrote "Paradise": "A frightened, long-necked child who did not speak for weeks but when she did, her light, singsong voice was lovely to hear. Some how, some way, the child assuaged the tiny yet eternal yearning for the home Lina once knew, where everyone had anything, and no one had everything."

Reading this novel was an intense, deeply moving, and satisfying experience. Even though the novel is short, it is bright, deep and weighty.
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16 of 17 people found the following review helpful
on November 18, 2008
Format: Hardcover
Like many Americans, I was first introduced to the work of Toni Morrison during my freshman year of college, when I read THE BLUEST EYE as part of a literature survey course. I moved on to several more of her books --- BELOVED, SONG OF SOLOMON, TAR BABY --- in English and women's studies courses, and have read all her other novels published since, continuing to marvel at her penetrating insights into race, sex and American history. THE BLUEST EYE, her debut, continues to be the one most often taught in college, probably because it's her shortest and most accessible. That is, until now.

Morrison's new book, A MERCY, is perhaps the perfect introduction to this Nobel Prize-winning author's work, offering readers, in fewer than 175 pages, a glimpse into her powerful literary style and keen insights into issues of race, violence, sex, history, identity and community that also demonstrates her brilliance and maturity as a writer.

The America that Morrison shows readers in A MERCY is one in its infancy, one in which "states" were hardly united, when differences of background, religion and ideology marked provincial boundaries as stark as any political border. Set in the 1680s and 1690s, it portrays a region in search of an identity, one in which the definitions of "free" and "slave" are both nebulous and shifting.

At the center of the novel is the household of Jacob Vaark. Vaark, like almost everyone in the colony, is an immigrant, a businessman who lives somewhere in the North but enters into slaveholding --- and the social grasping that seems to accompany it --- almost by accident. He obtains his first slave --- a Native American woman named Lina, whose village has been destroyed by smallpox and whose reputation has been destroyed after a rape --- to be company for his mail-order wife, Rebekka. Eventually, the two women, who develop a close friendship, are joined by another, deeply troubled slave known only as Sorrow.

Finally, the object of the "mercy" of the novel's title is Florens, bought for the Vaark household as a young girl at the entreaty of her mother. As Vaark travels on business and, later, as he becomes obsessed with building a grand home, the women form a family of sorts. After Vaark's death and Rebekka's subsequent illness, however, they discover just how fragile their bonds are, how fragmented their identities.

Vaark's household is something of a microcosm of the nascent country. Besides demonstrating the splintered identities of various American ethnic groups (and even of some individuals), the stories that make up the novel illustrate starkly and powerfully the legacy of violence, betrayal and inhumanity that is part of our nation's heritage. In particular, Morrison illustrates starkly and powerfully the ways in which slavery, in all its forms, robs people of their essential humanity and promotes the kind of "wilderness" that leads to violence, shame and despair.

Readers will come away from A MERCY feeling that they understand not only Morrison's literary techniques but also a little more about American history, marveling that out of these fragmented, isolated, brutal pieces came anything resembling unity.

--- Reviewed by Norah Piehl
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14 of 15 people found the following review helpful
Format: Hardcover
Toni Morrison has once again created a work of gorgeous, delicate beauty. A Mercy is told from the perspective of a new World farmer in 1690, Jacob Vaark, his wife, and their slaves and indentured workers.

Each of them has in some way been set adrift at some time in their lives. There is a sense that a good community has been built among them, in a way. But it is really just a thin illusion, since Jacob's death displays all too well the dependence on his mercy. Women, women of color, poor men, all of them are powerless. And the point of the book is spelled out well with a commentary about the kinds of slavery we set for ourselves.

This is a wonderful book that sets one to thinking about the consequences of acts of mercy and the sometimes hidden motives behind those acts. Dr. Morrison continues to write beautiful books that nonetheless make one take a hard look at both history and the human heart.
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17 of 19 people found the following review helpful
on November 11, 2008
Format: Hardcover
In her latest novel Toni Morrison takes us back to the late 17th century America. The plot gives her an opportunity to present America in the making, there is no US yet, there are colonies, each somewhat different in their culture, religion or attitude to slavery. Sending her characters on distant voyages Morrison adroitly shapes the plot in such a way as to give the reader at least an impression of the variety that America once was. The differences between people and places are the most clearly visible in the opposition between Maryland and New York yet the choice of characters also helps Morrison to stress the diversity of American roots.
And yet "A Mercy" is not just a historical novel. The setting is important but Morrison is much more interested in her characters presented in the novel with depth and insight. This concentration is reflected in the form of the book - we get to know about the events from the characters in a series of monologues which culminate in the final monologue of Florens' mother which ties some of the book's loose ends and answers some of its haunting questions.
Each of the monologues comes from a completely different character - a slave, a native American, a Dutch etc. - this variety is almost incredible but serves to add a depth to the book, broadens the view the reader gets.
As usual in Morrison's fiction the characters are mostly women. As a result the book to some degree fails as a HIStory book, it is much more of a HERstory book, offering the reader a selection of points of view usually missing in more traditional history writing both fictional and scholarly.
In short: another great book from a Nobel-prize winning novelist.
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65 of 81 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon December 16, 2008
Format: HardcoverVerified Purchase
When I saw this new book by Toni Morrison, I could hardly wait to read it. Now that I've finished the book, I'm left feeling ambiguous about it. The novel is told in revolving voices, in turn by each of the characters. The end result is that I don't feel I real knew any of these characters, nor did I really care about any of them. And because the novel is not clearly told in linear fashion, it takes a good deal of effort to attempt to piece together all the parts and stories of the characters to try to make sense of what has happened and what is happening. (And I'm still not sure I got everything straight)

This novel never did make me realize something I didn't already know. There was no astounding revelation here. The themes in this novel have been discussed at length and in detail before. Therefore, without a true climax or situation to be resolved, the novel is just a somewhat confusing story that...ends.

I guess I was expecting more - much more - and this novel simply did not deliver on those expectations for me.
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14 of 16 people found the following review helpful
Format: Hardcover
"A Mercy" is one of Toni Morrison's most accessible novels of late. In general, when an author is compared to Faulkner I run the other direction, but Morrison is the exception. The "Faulkner-essence" in "A Mercy" is mercifully minimal. Be not afraid.

In this novella, Morrison explores not just slavery, but also the experiences of Native Americans, indentured servants, and the ambivalence of early settlers who were not so keen on slavery...yet benefited from it nonetheless. It is also easy to read a strong anti-religion thread through this story. Neither Protestants nor Catholics escape condemnation, although Lina's made up Native American spirituality seems acceptable.

"A Mercy" was an enjoyable read, though it seemed truncated; I would have been happy to read much more about these characters.
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8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
on January 30, 2009
Format: Hardcover
In "A Mercy" by Toni Morrison as in her other books, each sentence is a beauty of construction and hidden meaning. This is a story about slavery and about the difference among "masters."

The primary setting is near Chesapeake Bay; but other areas, although brief in the story, give the life in Barbados and Maryland. The weather and the effect of the weather in the various areas on the people, especially the slaves, show the disregard for the increased physical discomfort that the slaves are subjected to.

A white husband and wife who live near Chesapeake Bay are at the center of the story. The husband first meets his wife when she arrives in America. Her parents are unable to care for her and make an arrangement for her to marry this Dutch man across the ocean. Is this act by the parents a mercy for an unwed daughter?

The Dutch trader, Mister, is sympathetic toward individual slaves and when circumstances present, he rescues several African females into his home-Lina, Sorrow and Florens. Each girl joins him and his wife at different times as each is rescued from different areas and for different reasons.

The background of each girl is explored and grants an understanding of her present predicament. The elder girl, Lina is sold by an African tribe and taken by a crowded ship to America. She is old enough to remember her past and the songs of her culture. It is she who is close as sisters to the white wife, Rebekka. They share work, laughter, and secrets.

Sorrow only knows the ship and the ocean as her home. When the ship flounders off the coast, she realizes everyone is dead and makes her way to shore. A merciful woman takes into her home until the woman's sons use Sorrow for their "pleasure" then she rids herself of the child and the kindly Dutch trader takes Sorrow home.

The final child, Florens is taken in payment for a debt after her mother pushes the girl toward this man who the mother sees "no animal" (rape) in him. Rather than rescue herself from her cruel master, Senhor, out of mercy she promotes her daughter to the kindly trader. This kindly Anglo-Dutch trader has disgust for slavery and takes three unwanted young black women under his care. His disgust for slavery fails to interfere with making his living by financing those who deal in slaves.

The story is how mercy may or may not be best as time progresses--the mercy of the mother who sacrifices her daughter from a certain cruelty and the mercy of the Dutch-trader who rescues the three young women. There is the ambivalence of doing nothing and leaving the girls where they were. An act of mercy changes the lives of everyone but is mercy the better choice? Would it be better to never know and grow to expect certain kindness? Which is the least cruel? Which is the more merciful?

Like Ms Morrison's other books, "A Mercy" is enlightening, but leaves a haunting feeling in this reader. I recalled my southern grandmother's teachings to think before I acted regarding "colored" people. My actions might cause hardship for someone of color although nothing against me. A little act of mercy may have dire consequences for others. Ms Morrison has a way of looking into the soul, stirring emotions there and creating reflection for one's own choices.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on March 28, 2009
Format: Hardcover
A Mercy is a good novel, although compared to Morrison's tour de force, Beloved, it lacks substance. A Mercy is a short novel, and while it doesn't have the complexity and emotional gravity of Beloved, it is still makes for a compelling read.

A bit of a caution: This is a novel that requires something of its reader. The reader can't just expect to open the book and be entertained. There's a certain amount of `work' involved. The narrative is, at times, intentionally obscure and it can be difficult to follow the shifting narratives, flashbacks, and imagery used by the author. There are times when you may find a need to re-read portions of the novel in order to fully grasp what's going on. This prospect may not appeal to all readers.

For some readers though, the extra effort is worth it. Morrison's prose is extraordinary. There are passages in the novel that are simply mesmerizing. At times I paused just to admire her use of language, the richness of her prose. There is a section of the novel, written in first person, where Florens injures a child that is absolutely spellbinding.

The themes of the novel are similar to Beloved, notably the difficult choice a mother faces in order to protect a child. In A Mercy, Morrison explores the issue of abandonment and the notion of slavery as a concept, something people impose upon themselves. The main characters in A Mercy are, either literally or figuratively, orphans. They find a sense of belonging for a period of time however the loose bond they share crumbles when their husband/master dies.

A Mercy is a quick read, thin on plot but rich in its exploration of themes. Morrison's writing is mesmerising, although, in the end, there isn't enough substance to the novel to really make a lasting impression on the reader. I found it to be a reasonably compelling read, but not nearly as provocative and thought provoking as Morrison's best work.
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