sarah goodwin-nguyen

Review of "A Mercy" by Sarah Goodwin-Nguyen


Toni Morrison


Reviewed by Sarah Goodwin-Nguyen




How does one review a book by Toni Morrison?  Feelings of “I’m not worthy” are inevitable.  Reading a Toni Morrison novel is always an astounding, unsettling experience.   Morrison never shies away from bringing  her readers to the dark core of the matter, especially when that matter is the enslavement of human beings. 

A Mercy treads territory we’ve seen before in Morrison’s work, most notably in the Nobel Prize winning Beloved.  As in Beloved, Morrison takes on the daunting task of channeling the voices of slaves in pre-Civil War America.  One wonders how  a successful, educated, modern-day citizen of the U.S. of A. seems to understand so well what the lives of slaves must have been like.  Ms. Morrison’s amazing gift has always been her ability to create an authentic written voice for people who were unable to write their own stories.  Through this gift, she is able to give them and internal life greater than the obvious hardship of their situations.    

As usual, her characters, and their stories,  are complex, compelling, and real enough to walk off the page.  A Mercy watches the women of Jacob Vaark, an English trader recently come to the American frontier where he has inherited land in Maryland.  Though Jacob expresses some distaste for slavery, he accepts a young slave girl, Florens, in lieu of money to erase a nobleman’s debt.  The defining moment of Florens’ life is when Florens’ own mother offers her up to Jacob.  Florens believes her mother is preoccupied with her new baby boy, but Jacob suspects correctly that she wants to save Florens  from being forced into her master’s bed.  This is the profound, startling act of mercy in the novel’s title.


The act or idea of being orphaned is central to A Mercy.  Jacob was himself an orphan, and has a soft spot for unwanted children.  By the time he brings Florens home, he has already  acquired two other orphans to the household.  There is Sorrow, a silent, strange girl, the daughter of a pirate, who was found nearly-drowned by a sawyer who gave her to Jacob (the sawyer’s wife was unnerved by Sorrow’s sexual nature.)  Also, there is Lina, a Native-American  whose tribe was killed by smallpox.   The church that took her in as a child eventually sold her through and ad in the newspaper. 

Interestingly, Lina’s view of “Europes,” as her people called the whites, is that they have orphaned themselves from the earth, their mother: “They would come with languages that sounded like dog bark; with a childish hunger for animal fur.  They would forever fence land, ship whole trees to faraway countries, take any woman for quick pleasure, ruin soil, befoul sacred places and worship a dull, unimaginative god.  They let their hogs browse the ocean shore turning it into dunes of sand where nothing green can ever grow again.  Cut loose from the earth’s soul, the insisted on purchase of it soil, and like all orphans they were insatiable.”

The mistress of the household is Rebekka, Jacob’s wife by arranged marriage.   She is the headstrong daughter of poor, religious zealots, sent to America to the first stranger willing to pay a bride-price.  It’s interesting to note that none of the women in Jacob’s life ended up with him of their own free will.   Nonetheless, he treats them decently, and the hardship of life on the frontier turns them into a family.  But when Jacob becomes mortally ill, the women confront the reality that they are not a family: they are a man’s property.  They know that once Jacob is gone, is it only a matter of time before they are parceled off to other masters. 

Jacob’s upright character is, at first, irreproachable, especially compared to the other white Christians we meet in the novel who have somehow convinced themselves that they do “God’s work” by oppressing anyone different from themselves.  But after Rebekka gives birth to five boys and a girl who all die before their sixth birthday, Jacob’s character falters.  He is away from home more and more often, and squanders his wealth on impractical baubles, most notably, on increasingly bigger houses.  The last house he builds is gaudy and flimsy, falling apart before they ever move in.

 The only other men in the women’s lives are the kindly indentured servants from a neighboring property,  Scully and Willard,  who occasionally help out on Jacob’s property.  That is, until, a free, black African man, a blacksmith, arrives in their midst, unsettling the women.  Florens, especially, falls hopelessly in love.  Florens’ undoing will be the enraged jealousy she feels upon meeting the small orphan boy that the blacksmith has taken on as his own, dredging up memories of her own mother’s choice to keep her baby boy but send Florens away.

Morrison does not hand readers the story, but lets it unpeel.  Each character gets a chance a tell a bit of their tale in their own dialect, and only at the very end will we hear from Florens’ mother.  As in Beloved, the author moves backward and forward in time.  The theme in both novels (the unbelievable lengths a mother will do to spare her daughter) is the same, but A Mercy is slightly less harrowing.  Whereas the darkness in Beloved is unrelenting, A Mercy has moments of redemption.   Perhaps this is because A Mercy takes place in an earlier time.  America’s system of slavery was still in its infancy, and had not yet reached its brutal boiling point.       

The moral of A Mercy, though obvious, is stated in a succinct, rather unexpected manner by Florens’ mother.  At the end, we will learn how her tribe in Africa was invaded by another tribe.  Shockingly, her people were forced into slavery by other African blacks.  Those who survived the journey at sea were utterly stripped of their humanity in America.  Unforgettably, she says: “to be given dominion over another is a hard thing; to wrest dominion over another is a wrong thing; to give dominion of yourself to anther is a wicked thing.”   



Sarah Goodwin-Nguyen's Review of "The White Tiger"

“The White Tiger” by Aravind Adiga

Reviewed by Sarah Goodwin-Nguyen

Free Press, 2008, 304 page      The winner of this year’s prestigious Booker Prize focuses on a young man’s rise from the slums of modern India. Balram Halwai is the owner of a taxi fleet; he is also a wanted killer. He tells his life story through letters (written in English) to the Premier of China who is soon to visit Balram’s city of Bangalore .  Outsourcing for American companies is the main industry in Bangalore, but Balram explains that this sort of entrepreneurship is not available to India’s lower classes, who do not receive proper education, and very rarely have electricity.  Balram suggests to Premier Jiabao that there is another, darker form of entrepreneurship alive and well in India in the form of criminal activity. 

As a boy, Balram excelled in school, a rarity for boys of his caste.  His family dubbed him “The White Tiger,” then pulled him out of school to work.  Balram’s station in life seems fixed, but Balram continues his education by eavesdropping on customers.  Eventually, he ingratiates himself to a wealthy family of landlords and moves to Dehli to become their driver.

Balram is treated as an object of convenience for his despicable masters.  Balram lives in a tiny, filthy room, and is on call at all times.  He is expected to give foot massages, care for the master’s lap dogs (who are better fed than he is), and endure any humiliation the employers see fit.  His immediate master, Ashok, was educated in the West.  At first, Balram admires Ashok’s worldly ways, but soon learns to despise Ashok’s inability to stand up to his father, his failure to hold onto his sophisticated wife, and his weakness for whiskey.  

When Balram is expected to take the blame for a hit-and-run which killed a homeless child (Ashok’s wife was drunk behind the wheel,) Balram confronts the lack of humanity with which the rich are allowed to treat the poor.  Balram describes life as a servant in India as “the Rooster Coop.” The entire class system is devised to keep him in.  He laments the complacency of the other servants and the arrogance of their masters who fear no retribution for their abuses. 

Balram is aware that India is changing, being influenced by Western capitalism.  But, despite promises by the Socialist government, the prejudices of an ancient caste system are still in place, and a stupendous gap between rich and poor remains.  Balram, recently saddled with a young nephew sent to him by his grandmother, becomes desperate for a way out.  He decides to murder Ashok, steal a bag of money Ashok plans to use to bribe an official, and drive off in his master’s air-conditioned Honda to a new life.    

Adiga has created a sympathetic anti-hero in Balram.  Balram is decidedly not sorry for murdering his boss, or for stealing, or for abandoning his family who will probably pay with their lives for his crime.  How else, Adiga seems to asks, could Balram escape the poverty and oppression caused by India’s caste system?  The problem is not necessarily Balram’s lack of scruple: it is that a man locked in cage may try to tear his way out. 

Balram’s ambivalence is complicated by the fact that Balram’s murdered boss, Ashok, is not a cruel man.  He is spoiled and weak.  He bribes officials, sleeps with prostitutes, and drinks English whiskey because that is what men of his station do.  He is unable to relate to his thoroughly modern wife, or to be with the woman of a lower caste he once loved.  Ashok seems as trapped in his life as a landlord as Balram is in his as a servant.  

There is nothing magical or sensuous about the India of The White Tiger. The author, through Balram, offers a scathing portrait of a country rife with gritty poverty, corrupt officials, and elitist mores. Adiga’s Dehli is drawn as two very different cities.  For the rich, Dehli is a land of swanky malls and nightclubs.  Meanwhile, the poor keep warm with fires set in trashcans and urinate in the gutters.  The existence of each world is dependent on not looking to closely at the other.  In a moment of drunken indiscretion, Ashok visits Balram’s room in the servants’ quarters and is shamefully unaware that such squalor exists in his very own home.     

           Adiga-as-Balram is irreverent and sly.  He uses language that is suitably coarse and without poetry,  a counterpoint to more lyrical literature by Indian writers like Salman Rushdie or Bharati Mukhergee. Overall, the effect is a smart, engaging, and entertaining read. 

The novel’s one flaw may be its utter lack of surprise or suspense due to the narrative framing device;  Balram admits to murdering his boss at the beginning of the book.   Luckily, the novel echoes the mystery magazines enjoyed by Balram’s fellow drivers, promising “Rape, Murder, and Mayhem:” Though the outcome is foretold, the interest lies in the lurid details.