Paradise, Toni Morrison’s first novel since she was awarded the 1993 Nobel Prize in Literature, has been eagerly awaited. It spans more than eighty years, beginning with the founding of Haven, Oklahoma, by a group of former slaves (the Old Fathers) led by Zechariah Morgan, after they are turned away by lighter citizens of an all-black town (ironically named Fairly) because their skins are too dark. This bitter event, known as the Disallowing, is reenacted each Christmas season in Haven, which thrives until the hard years of the Depression and Dust Bowl.
Veterans returning from World War II decide to relocate their dying town, renaming it Ruby in honor of Zechariah’s granddaughter, the first to be buried there. Her twin brothers Steward and Deacon Morgan are bankers and respected civic leaders in the new community. Ruby remains largely isolated from the rest of the world, and its inhabitants prefer it that way. Tradition- bound town fathers are willing to sacrifice in order to continue their pure line.
Ruby’s patriarchal traditions are challenged by the inhabitants of an old mansion known as the Convent, some seventeen miles from town. Originally built as a pleasure palace, complete with pornographic plumbing, by an embezzler who was arrested at his first wild party, it was then purchased by Catholic nuns as a boarding school for Arapaho girls. Years later, after both students and nuns have gone, the Convent becomes an informal refuge for five lost women who live there more or less permanently, scandalizing Ruby, until local vigilantes set out after them. The novel begins with this attack.
The senior woman of the Convent is Consolata Sosa, rescued at nine from the streets of Brazil by a nun and brought to the school as her ward. Connie becomes a willing cook and servant to the nuns. She discovers and tends the famous purplish-black hot peppers that grow only on Convent grounds, and soon she begins to sell produce and baked goods from the Convent kitchen. Shortly after the founding of Ruby, she encounters Deacon Morgan, and they quickly become lovers even though he is married. Their affair is passionate and brief, for his brother Steward is suspicious, and Deacon dare not sacrifice his standing in this strict community. Later, when his son is killed in an automobile accident, the aging midwife Lone DuPres shows Connie how to “step in” and revive him. Yet Connie, “gifted” though she may be, lives in fear of God’s punishment for this power.
In 1968, Mavis Albright joins her when her car breaks down near the Convent. She is fleeing a brutal husband and the death of her infant twins, accidentally smothered in a hot, closed car. Mavis is a classic victim of abuse, isolated, wearing sunglasses to hide her bruises, believing herself inferior and forever wrong. Her own mother has betrayed her, but somehow Connie is able to put her at ease.
Soon the rebel Gigi follows, fresh from a riot in Oakland where her boyfriend has been jailed. Her father is in prison, her mother unreachable. Gigi seeks social justice and has a penchant for going naked, but she comes to Ruby in search of food and love, specifically, rhubarb pie and two fabled trees that intertwine like lovers. (She finds the pie.)
Sweet Seneca, the peacemaker, also finds a home at the Convent. Abandoned at the age of five by her older “sister” (actually her mother), Seneca has grown into a gentle woman, desperate to please others, who does not know how to respect herself. Secretly, she slashes herself with a razor.
The last to arrive is sixteen-year-old Pallas Truelove, who eloped with the janitor at her high school only to have her artist- mother fall in love with him. She has also been traumatized by a group of men who hunted her. Pallas rests briefly at the Convent, then goes back to California to finish high school, but she returns at Christmas, four months pregnant.
None of these events are presented in chronological order, as those familiar with the author’s work will already know. For the unsuspecting reader, however, coherence may be a problem, since much of the background information is delayed until the second half of the book. The novel is elliptically told in Morrison’s rich, storyteller voice, creating an effect of increasing illumination, introducing characters and events as gradually as dawning light clarifies the interior of a room.
The text spills over with magical language. After their long journey, Zechariah and the wandering freedmen are “raggedy as sauerkraut.” At a contemporary wedding “the men’s squeaky new shoes glistened like melon seeds.” Connie, who is “a woman in love with the cemetery,” buries herself in a cellar room and yearns to die to escape her guilt. Only the solace of wine permits her to endure “her slug life,” her unbearable thoughts.
This is a novel about passion. At first, the children of Haven have a passion for freedom, religion, and respect; their lives are devoted to these principles. Yet their passion gradually becomes distorted, especially by the men of Ruby, into a fanaticism that will brook no...
(The entire section is 2106 words.)