This is the kind of book I can’t read to relax… Each sentence makes me want to hide or slam the book down and drown in the happy happy parts of my music collection. I want to run away but I can’t let go. Paradise, by Toni Morrison, is a bullet, a kaleidoscopic-thematic bullet that completely undoes what you thought a novel could be. It’s a wash of voice, each protagonist a heavyweight character with dark and quirk and conflict with each turn of phrase. It’s arresting.
Set in a fictional town, Ruby, Paradise tracks the lives of a group of women who find themselves colliding with each other at different points of time around a Convent.
What’s beautiful is how these collisions happen. There’s no linear time here, no chance to gauge where you are because by the next paragraph, Morrison leaps voice, character, setting. You learn about each character in drips, tiny slivers of story that Morrison bleeds in when you least expect but when you most need it. This is poetry. I can forever talk about how prose can be ‘poetic’ and never really know what I’m talking about, but Paradise is poetry. It is narrative that isn’t susceptible to lineation. It relies on the language and how that catapults you from past to present to future to now to then to who? It’s a storm.
Themes are of race, faith, identity, equality and family; how we have to rely on each other in times of hardship and the pressures that are brought about by this. The hardships in this novel are created by the men, the domineering, corrupt and violent men of Ruby. Paradise charts the endurance of women who suffer and in some cases overcome these challenges. It is a reality that Morrison has managed to capture in this book as she gives us characters that are purely shaped by their actions upon each other. This allows her to drive us to core of how men abuse their power, to then show us a spectrum of how this can manifest. Morrison also presents the women of Paradise as flawed, highlighted by how they conflict with each other when they have so much working against them. This is a book of equality in its exploration of inequality. It builds characters as humans, people who act upon their prejudices, their background influences and external forces that lead to situations where people get hurt or sacrifices are made.
Criticism could be that it’s a challenging book to pick up and sink back into. It can be jagged at times with block sections of such crowded prose that I found I would sometimes forget whose story I was following. I believe that’s another element that Morrison has implemented in the language of this novel; everyone is lost in Ruby, or on their way to being so. This is how we get lost with them. I would recommend anyone to get lost with them.
This is a heavy book. Beautiful but heavy. I will be taking a break from Toni Morrison but Paradise has shifted my approach to writing and reading, so I will definitely return to her work in the future.
How to open chapters with Toni Morrison:
‘They shoot the white girl first.’
‘The neighbour seemed pleased when the babies smothered.’
‘Either the pavement was burning or she had sapphires hidden in her shoes.’
‘In the good clean darkness of the cellar, Consalata woke to the wrenching disappointment of not having died the night before.’
Read When: You want a challenge with language used, character, narrative style and thematic blades.
Don’t Read When: You want escapism, light reading.
Toni Morrison, Paradise, 1997, Alfred A. Knopf