I finished reading this book yesterday [5th January] and I still can’t believe this is the first novel Toni Morrison wrote. For a first novel it is unafraid, and it’s not the story being told which makes it a great novel, it’s the poetry in the storytelling. The language left me stunned for how beautiful (and natural) it is, there were a number of beautiful lines littered throughout this book. Morrison takes a very uncomfortable and tragic story and immediately strips it of its shock value within the first couple of pages by telling the reader what is going to take place. It doesn’t make the vulgar and perverse moments which are still present more acceptable for the forewarning either, but it means Morrison is able to shift the focus elsewhere so the taboo act which takes place doesn’t become the crutch of the novel to keep the reader interested.
There are big issues in this novel that are unfortunately relevant 46 years later after first being published, some of which hit me personally too. The importance of diverse representation within the media is highlighted in how Morrison tackles the damaging ideal of beauty which is presented to the characters and the responses had in turn. Claudia and her sister resent the popular Shirley Temple beauty ideal with Claudia destroying blonde haired and blue eyed dolls given to her to try find what it is that somehow makes these dolls beautiful. Mrs Breedlove erases herself as a person in response to the beauty ideals encountered when watching Hollywood films, cleaning off the colours experienced which made her feel alive and beautiful beforehand. Pecola, the main character of this story, sees herself completely ugly and only ever redeemed as a person if she incorporates these beauty ideals by having blue eyes. As well as the destructive belief white/cleanliness is better, Morrison also touches on victim shaming as in the end Pecola serves not just as a way for the community to feel better about themselves; it isn’t until the end of the story that we hear her inner voice, and by that time it is fractured completely.
What Morrison gives us is a coming-of-age/coming-to-terms novel relating the formative experiences of her characters and how in each case there is a failure in coming to terms with the events experienced or attitudes inherited. The vivid imagery and poetry woven into the language constantly charms the reader (as is done in Lolita with the same kind of uncomfortable acts that take place), there are different kinds of narration employed throughout so the reader is more able to try understand and humanise these characters despite the transgressions mentioned. There is no simple portrait or explanation given which I like. Nevertheless I think the characters end up representative than fully developed because there are so many issues Morrison wants to tackle in such a short amount of time, so it ends up as a snapshot, a cautionary fable of sorts and an insight into the mindset of a generation. Again, still a devastating story and one which is powerfully told by Morrison.