Reviews

Morrison, Toni: Paradise (1997)

After reading this book four times, I guess it is time for a review.

Four times? Four times. Why? I don’t even know. It just happened I guess. Looking back, I realise that Toni Morrison somehow managed to take over more space on my book shelves than many other authors. While I can’t say that I don’t like her work, I must admit that this fact doesn’t say as much about my personal preferences as it does about  those of my lecturers. Toni Morrison is to this day the poster child for “Black Literature” and any self respecting professor would include at least one work written by a person of colour in their syllabus, right? And one work written by a woman. Wait…what? We can have both in just one novel? Brilliant! At least that’s what it looks like to me…

But I digress. I’m not here today to discuss possible reasons for the inclusion of Toni Morrison’s work into the literary canon, but to give you an insight into one of her novels in particular: Paradise.

Paradise Collage

There is a stark contrast between the protagonists of Beloved, arguably Morrison’s most famous work and the novel that earned her the Pulitzer Prize of Literature in 1988, and those of Paradise. Beloved is a story about slavery and the miseries that came with living a slave’s life. The protagonists of Paradise, however, are people whose ancestors were slaves but who themselves never experienced slavery or, if they have, are now finally free and have been for some time. It is set in a time when – according to the law – black people enjoyed mostly the same rights as white people and were therefore free to go where they please, work to support themselves and their family and pursue their happiness to their heart’s content.

Unfortunately, this is far from the reality the future inhabitants of Ruby encountered when they set out to seek fulfilment and happiness. What they did encounter was hatred and a world that was still ordered according to pre civil war standards.

Paradise tells the story of an all-black town and a convent situated at the outskirts of said town. The town is called ‘Ruby’ and was intended to be a haven for its inhabitants: a group of coal black people who kept being rejected by other communities because of their dark skin and their poverty.

Morrison’s novel goes to show that old habits really do die hard and that hatred is easily perpetuated and passed on from one generation to another. As a result of the rejection the people of Ruby experienced, they’ve grown to hate not only all white people, but everybody whose skin is lighter than their own.

Hence the inhabitants of Ruby end up applying the same unhealthy ideals they themselves fell victim to: ideals of racial purity and the imagined superiority of one’s own blood above everybody else’s.

The novel highlights the patriarchal structures that dominate the society of Ruby and that are reinforced by the ‘blood rule’ that Ruby’s leaders impose on the community. The founding families want to control the blood running in their descendants’ veins and therefore treat their fellow townspeople like livestock and their females like mares who need to be covered by appropriate stallions. (Yes, this comparison is actually in the book, I didn’t make that up.)

In a juxtaposition to this, there’s the convent, where over time a group of hurt, wounded and broken women has assembled to live together peacefully. The convent is by no means portrayed as a typical ‘paradise’, but it is certainly a haven for those who end up there.

Like most of Toni Morrison’s novels, Paradise is definitely no light reading and I almost feel bad for bothering you with this review today given that the current temperatures make any kind of thinking almost unbearable – at least that’s what it’s like in my neck of the woods. However, once the weather realises that this is indeed not the seventh circle of hell but, well…earth, I strongly suggest you pick up a copy and find out what happens once the dogmatic world views perpetrated by Ruby’s elders are confronted with the women out at the convent – the mares who dare to run free.

Paradise

As you can see when looking at my copy of the novel, I’ve worked a lot with this particular book. However, that doesn’t mean that I claim to fully understand every aspect of it, as it is very complex and reveals a new facet whenever I pick it up. There were so many things I wanted to mention, but this post is getting too long already and the heat is making it difficult to remember everything I’m forgetting right now. 😉


Did you read Paradise / any of Morrison’s novels?

What did you think? Did you like them? Dislike them?

Were they part of your curriculum at school / university? 

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