PARADISE, Toni Morrison’s first novel since she was awarded the 1993 Nobel Prize in Literature, rises easily to the level of her best work. It takes place in Ruby, Oklahoma, the second incarnation of an all-black town originally founded by a group of former slaves. Ruby remains largely isolated from the rest of the world, and its inhabitants prefer it that way. The town leaders are men who have inherited a passion for freedom, religion, and respect, but their passion has gradually become distorted into a fanaticism which will brook no contradiction. They resist any challenge to tradition.

Ruby’s patriarchy is ignored by the five independent women who come one by one to live in an old mansion known as the Convent, some seventeen miles from town. The women are Consolata, a former servant at the Convent; Mavis, a battered wife; Gigi, the free- spirited activist; Seneca, who slices her skin with razors; and Pallas, a lonely little rich girl. In the course of the novel they find peace through Consolata, who becomes the consoler her name suggests as she intuitively instructs them in the rites of a very old religion. They exemplify a separation from the rigid, authoritarian ways of Ruby.

The novel begins at its climax, with an attack by the town vigilantes against the Convent, then winds through past events to return to that same attack. Morrison offers a delightful blend of complex characters and magical language. The novel is elliptical, told...

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