Sunday, 26 February 2006

Review: Song of Solomon, Toni Morrison (1977)

It’s clear why this book is titled Song of Solomon, but I’m loath to go into details lest I spoil things for someone who is yet to read it. Let it be said from the outset that reading this was a revelation of sorts — how could a U.S. writer produce something so Marquezian but in her own inimitable style? Morrison teaches creative writing, and I’d very much like to be one of her pupils.

Because I was so bowled away by this novel and because there’s so much that happens after certain facts are revealed, this review will necessarily be short. Just a couple of quotes to whet the appetite of the curious. I’ll restrict myself to the beginning of the book.

In the beginning, Morrison’s rapid-fire prose makes it difficult to concentrate on the characters long enough to get a mental picture of the plot. The events fly past. It’s a restless prose, full of fire and brimstone. You’re not able to ‘place’ the characters, get an image of them, because as soon as you try, there’s a new one before you.

Something else is needed to get from sunup to sundown: a balm, a gentle touch or nuzzling of some sort. So Ruth rose up and out of her guileless inefficiency to claim her bit of balm right after the preparation of dinner and just before the return of her husband from his office. It was one of her two secret indulgences—the one that involved her son—and part of the pleasure it gave her came from the room in which she did it. A damp greenness lived there, made by the evergreen that pressed against the window and filtered the light. It was just a little room that Doctor had called a study, and aside from a sewing machine that stood in the corner along with a dress form, there was only a rocker and a tiny footstool. She sat in this room holding her son on her lap, staring at his closed eyelids and listening to the sound of his sucking. Staring not so much from maternal joy as from a wish to avoid seeing his legs dangling almost to the floor.

Finally, the characters come into focus: Macon Dead, his sister Pilate, his father and Freddie the flunky. The music of her rapid prose is quite mesmerising.

Surrendering to the sound, Macon moved closer. He wanted no conversation, no witness, only to listen and perhaps to see the three of them, the source of that music that made him think of fields and wild turkey and calico. Treading as lightly as he could, he crept up to the side window where the candlelight flickered lowest, and peeped in. Reba was cutting her toenails with a kitchen knife or a switchblade, her long neck bent almost to her knees. The girl, Hagar, was braiding her hair, while Pilate, whose face he could not see because her back was to the window, was stirring something in a pot. Wine pulp, perhaps. Macon knew it was not food she was stirring, for she and her daughters ate like children. Whatever they had a taste for. No meal was ever planned or balanced or served. Nor was there any gathering at the table. Pilate might bake hot bread and each one of them would eat it with butter whenever she felt like it. Or there might be grapes, left over from the winemaking, or peaches for days on end. If one of them bought a gallon of milk they drank it until it was gone. If another got a half bushel of tomatoes or a dozen ears of corn, they ate them until they were gone too. They ate what they had or came across or had a craving for. Profits from their wine-selling evaporated like sea water in a hot wind—going for junk jewellery for Hagar, Reba’s gifts to men, and he didn’t know what all.
  Near the window, hidden by the dark, he felt the irritability of the day drain from him and relished the effortless beauty of the women singing in the candlelight. Reba’s soft profile, Hagar’s hands moving, moving in her heavy hair, and Pilate. He knew her face better than he knew his own. Singing now, her face would be a mask; all emotion and passion would have left her features and entered her voice. But he knew that when she was neither singing nor talking, her face was animated by her constantly moving lips. She chewed things. As a baby, as a very young girl, she kept things in her mouth—straw from brooms, gristle, buttons seeds, leaves, string, and her favorite, when he could find some for her, rubber bands and India rubber erasers. Her lips were alive with small movements. If you were close to her, you wondered if she was about to smile or was she merely shifting a straw from the baseline of her gums to her tongue. Perhaps she was dislodging a curl of rubber band from inside her cheek, or was she really smiling? From a distance she appeared to be whispering to herself, when she was only nibbling or splitting seeds with her front teeth. Her lips were darker then her skin, wine-stained, blueberry-died, so her face had a cosmetic look—as though she had applied a very dark lipstick neatly and blotted away its shine on a scrap of newspaper.
  As Macon felt himself softening under the weight of memory and music, the song died down. The air was quiet and yet Macon Dead could not leave. He liked looking at them freely this way. They didn’t move. They simply stopped singing and Reba went on pairing her toenails, Hagar threaded and unthreaded her hair, and Pilate swayed like a willow over her stirring.