Wednesday, 7 June 2017

Paradise by Toni Morrison

Paradise by Toni Morrison
First published in America by Knopf in December 1997.

Where to buy this book:
Buy from independent booksellers via Abebooks
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How I got this book:
Borrowed from my partner

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Four young women are brutally attacked in a convent near an all-black town in America in the mid-1970s. The inevitability of this attack, and the attempts to avert it, lie at the heart of Paradise. Spanning the birth of the Civil Rights movement, Vietnam, the counter-culture and politics of the late 1970s, deftly manipulating past, present and future, this novel reveals the interior lives of the citizens of the town with astonishing clarity. Starkly evoking the clashes that have bedevilled the American century: between race and racelessness; religion and magic; promiscuity and fidelity; individuality and belonging.

Paradise starts with a violent end to its story. Women living in a convent are being shot by men and, as readers, we have no idea who anyone is or why this atrocity is happening. Jumping back in time, author Toni Morrison dedicates each chapter to the story of a woman and we slowly begin to understand the masculine pride, social fragmentation and perversion of religious belief that will lead to tragedy. Morrison imagined a nucleus of nine black families who, more than a hundred years ago, set out across America to find a home for themselves. Initially they thought they might join an existing black town, but insulted by refusals, they walked on until mystical visions indicated where they should found their own towns, Haven and, later, Ruby. Isolated from outside influence, the town and community prospered, retelling their history until the journeys became mythical and the founding fathers legendary.

Paradise is often a book of the differences and belief clashes between men and women. The families live in a highly patriarchal society which views the independent convent women, outsiders, as threats. I frequently found it difficult to work out and remember who was related to whom. Nicknames are used as well as given names so it often felt like reading a Russian novel and I wished for family tree diagrams. However, it later occurred to me that, as an outsider to Ruby, I probably wasn't intended to clearly understand their connections and this was another illustration of the differences between the townsfolk and the convent women - the women had no history in this place. Paradise is a great sweep of a novel which allowed me to easily imagine these lives and to become involved in the arguments and discussions. Some characters are clearly defined, others vague, and I loved how the pervasive unease grew and grew. Knowing how it will all end doesn't always work as a literary device, but for me it was well employed here. Perhaps overall I thought Paradise was a little too convoluted, but I enjoyed the read and am still mulling over its events several days later.

Search Lit Flits for more:
Books by Toni Morrison / Historical fiction / Books from America

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