The Short Version: A young black girl named Pecola living in post-Depression small-town Ohio wishes for blue eyes. Two of her schoolmates, wary of her, recount what they know about this young woman – as, meanwhile, far darker things occur above the level of child understanding. Pecola’s family’s history comes to influence their present – and to ensure that their future is a bleak one.
The Review: I rarely read forewords before I read classics that I’ve never read before. More often than not, they’re written by folks who are passionate about the novel at hand and written to an audience who is already conversant about said novel. Not knowing the characters or plot – and having never read any Toni Morrison, to my abiding shame (and to the shame of every English teacher I ever had), I’d thought to skip this one as well.
But, for whatever reason, I didn’t. I read Morrison’s own thoughts on her first novel and they allowed me to experience the book differently than I would’ve otherwise. She admits, from the get-go, that this novel is flawed – that it does not accomplish what she was trying to do. It’s rare to read an author who is so cognizant of their own failings, so conscious of the gap (however large or small it might be) between the goal and the attempt, and I was immediately on Morrison’s side. I then began the novel knowing what she wanted to do and how she believed that she failed. It is not up to me to agree or disagree, not really, but it was absolutely a worthwhile primer.
Morrison feels like one of those authors – as with all of the Ten Year Catch-Up authors, in fact – who it is hard to think critically about in the present day. She exists with such totemic solidity that it feels as though everything has already been said that could possibly be said. Add to that that I’m an upper-middle-class white man, whose insights on Morrison are probably the least important that you’ll ever read.
But I can’t not say it: damn, she can write. Let’s turn aside from the topic of whether or not she achieves what she set out to achieve and just look at how she got there in the first place – and all you can really say is “wow.” Morrison, even at this early stage in her career, is writing with a clarity of prose and a gift for description that comforts, engages, and grips the reader. Stylistically, I can see strains of her as recently as The Mothers – and politically, I can see the way that this novel (and, I assume, the later ones) has become as ingrained in popular culture and discourse as the work of Charles Dickens or William Shakespeare.
What does it mean, for a young black girl to wish for blue eyes like Shirley Temple? What did black beauty mean in the 30s and what does it mean today? It’s impossible not to think of Kanye West’s stunt at the Met Gala in 2016 when reading this book after that fact, after the reams of opinion pieces that were published around that single moment.
But you can put aside the political meaning of Morrison’s book too and focus solely on the intimate personal details she evokes – for this is where she didn’t fail, not at all. Winding through time and perspectives while being willing to elide certain points or exclude them altogether is a bold thing for a debut novelist to do – I can only imagine what the conversation in the Tournament of Books would’ve been in 1970 – but Morrison pulls it off because the reader trusts her. Even as she takes you through moments of unimaginable sadness or darkness, you trust her – not to deliver a happy ending, but to deliver you an ending that feels right and real.
And god, that writing. The quote from the New York Times on the front of my copy says that “the novel becomes poetry” and, in a way, it does. The book never truly shifts out of prose but, rather, the author achieves something with her prose that most people will tell you only comes from poetry: a kind of transcendence. Open the book to any given page and you’ll find a line that makes you want to sink in and read for a few more pages – go ahead, give it a try.
Rating: 4 out of 5. Morrison, in her foreword to this later edition of the novel, makes the point that she doesn’t think this book quite does what she was trying to get it to do. And she’s not wrong: the political commentary is not as strong and the dark narrative becomes almost too hard to bear at times. But that does not make the book a failure – in fact, it makes it all the more interesting. It feels like it was the perfect place to start with Morrison (not always true of debut novels) and I look forward to the rest of the year reading her work. And I imagine that, this year perhaps more than ever before, it’s not just me who should be reading it.