Throughout Toni Morrison’s nine novels, certain key themes consistently appear, marking each book regardless of differences of setting, plot, character, and historical period. No issue is more significant to Morrison than the relationship between mother and daughter. Her most famous rendering of this remains Beloved (1987), in which a mother chooses to cut her daughter’s throat rather than allow her to be returned to a life of slavery. Morrison’s novel A Mercy has as its defining moment a similar horrible choice for a mother to make about her daughter’s life. The novel asks “What is the cost and what is the measure of a mother’s love?” A Mercy revisits many of the major concerns and motifs of Morrison’s work and also many defining scenes. Morrison continues to imagine certain pivotal moments in her fictional worldthe experience of the middle passage, the terror of being a hunted woman in the wild, the passion of men and women who give themselves wholly to each otherwhile re-visioning her past projections of these experiences. The result is a novel of impressive depth and great imaginative invention, not without its weaknesses, but offering fresh elements in Morrison’s work.
The structure of A Mercy is intricate but not nearly as complicated or baffling as her novels Beloved, Jazz (1992), or Paradise (1998). The book consists of twelve chapters, five of which are directly narrated by one of the characters, Florens. The other chapters are each devoted to one of the other characters, narrated by an unnamed third person whose view is generally limited to the consciousness of that chapter’s character. The Florens sections are shorter than the chapters devoted to others, serving as interludes to connect the different characters. By the novel’s end, the reader learns that Florens is writing her “telling” with a nail on the floor of her dead master Jacob Vaark’s unfinished mansion. It is possible, then, to conceive of the entire novel as being told by Florens, and that the book is in some sense the very structure of Jacob’s unfinished house, literally marked by the words of Florens.
Morrison has never before explored the historical period of A Mercy, which is late seventeenth century in colonial America. The novel is prefaced by an antiquarian map of what is now the long stretch from Connecticut to the Carolinas, marked throughout with the Native American place and river names. For A Mercy is also a cartography, an exploration of the land that is to some in the novel a brave new world and to others a very ancient and familiar landscape. For Jacob, English colonist, farmer, and now trader in rum and other goods, the land is an opportunity for great achievements, for establishing his posterity, and for creating a lasting domain. For Rebekah, his wife who answers his advertisement for “a healthy, chaste wife willing to travel abroad” and travels six weeks by ship from London to the colonies, the land is a chance for relative freedom, a different mastery: “her prospects were servant, prostitute, wife, and although horrible stories were told about each of those careers, the last one seemed safest. The one where she might have children and therefore be guaranteed some affection.” Together, with a purchased Native American servant, Lina, a homeless orphan girl, Sorrow, and the slave girl, Florens, whom Jacob accepts in lieu of debt from a Spanish planter, they constitute for a time an idiosyncratic but functioning family unit.
Jacob is the prime mover of this family, a true patriarch as his forename suggests. The women revolve around him because in the economic and religious structure of the novel’s time, they must. Jacob begins with the aspiration to be a farmer, but a growing restlessness compels him to seek other means to wealth. He begins trading in “goods and gold,” and he is repelled by the commodity slave trade that he witnesses in Maryland. Nevertheless, he envies the plantation owner’s ornate house and thus seeks greater riches, and thus he begins trafficking in rum. Jacob is thereby implicated in the barbaric molasses-rum-slaves triangle, deriving his wealth from precisely such a bloody business. Not long after he expands his business interests, his infant sons and his daughter die. In the midst of this, Jacob determines to build “a grand house of many rooms rising on a hill”...