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A Mercy

A new novel from Toni Morrison examines a legacy of abandonment.

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Toni Morrison’s books are epics of the failure of the country’s conscience. “When I began, there was just one thing that I wanted to write about, which was the true devastation of racism on the most vulnerable, the most helpless unit in the society – a black female and a child,” she told The New York Times in an interview.

Almost 40 years into her career, a black female child is still at the heart of her writing. In the Nobel Prize-winner’s first novel in five years, A Mercy, she goes back further in history than her most searing and poetic novel, “Beloved,” to look at the foundations of slavery in an America “before it was America.”

The chances for mercy to thrive in a new land are weighed on a small farm in New York. Four women who were acquired by farmer-turned-trader Jacob Vaark in various ways – marriage, purchase, repayment of debts – have forged an unlikely family, partly out of proximity but also out of a deep, thwarted hunger for motherhood – either to have one or to be one.

There are also two indentured male servants (whose contracts never seem to end), so the farm is a small collective of every type of servitude possible years before the country turned exclusively and implacably to the enslavement of black Africans. This might seem like a contrived set up for a morality play, but once Morrison’s writing takes over readers will not notice.

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