Thursday, June 13, 2019

BOOK REVIEW: Paradise by Toni Morrison

5 Stars

While my first attempt at reviewing this title, a task I’m not sure anyone can do justice to, this is not my first reading of the novel. That was many moons ago back in graduate school. Fast forward two decades later and I’m now teaching it to my oldest. I’ve been looking forward to days like this—introducing a deeply layered, complex, literary juicy piece and letting those critical thinking, analytical wheels in the mind begin to turn. If you’ve also never read this, then hopefully I’ll inspire more than one.

In full honesty, I didn’t fall in love with it on my first read. I was sure then that Song of Solomon was my favorite by Morrison, and Paradise hadn’t replaced it. Now, I’m not so sure. It’s different from her previous novels, and doesn’t necessarily wow you at first glance. It takes some digging to dust off murky surface impressions before the luster emerges. So that said, I believe this is one of those books that you have to read more than once. Notice I didn’t say simply twice.

This might be one of those limitless reads because you’ll continue to pick up more pieces of the 10,000 count puzzle that Morrison sort of tosses out on the living room floor, some pieces turned upside down and maybe even an edge or two hiding under the couch, with each read. Given the way that math plays out in the storytelling, it’s likely that a few of the 10,000 pieces are missing and there’s only 9,999 or maybe there’s really 10,005. Regardless, this story is a challenge, one that even some literary scholars and book critics can’t fully put together. A few might even have jammed some wrong pieces. And who knows, possibly only Morrison has the box with the uncut, non disjointed image. But once you start getting enough connections to get some semblance of a picture, the jem that this is will begin to shine through even if like many truths it’s still enshrined in the earth.

If you haven’t guessed, there isn’t a neat little linear plot. It’s not meant to be skimmed. If you read this book in that manner, you surely won’t get it. Nor is it meant to be read simply for surface value or for the story (stories) alone.  You can try that and you might still enjoy it, but it’s a tale about what’s underneath the surface….what’s really going on with not just the five displaced women (Mavis, Gigi, Seneca, Pallas, and Connie) who don’t need men or God, who break the mold of acceptable society and decorum to find wholeness, but also the men and the community they offend. In fact, be prepared to get an eclectic, and at times disjointed, history of the town and its residents as it’s interwoven with the arrivals of the women at the Convent—a building that’s sorta a former house of worship, school, and playboy mansion. (Yep, you read that right.)

While the premise (depicted on Goodreads and on the book’s cover)—“Paradise opens with a horrifying scene of mass violence and chronicles its genesis in an all-black small town in rural Oklahoma. Founded by the descendants of freed slaves and survivors in exodus from a hostile world, the patriarchal community of Ruby is built on righteousness, rigidly enforced moral law, and fear. But seventeen miles away, another group of exiles has gathered in a promised land of their own. And it is upon these women in flight from death and despair that nine male citizens of Ruby will lay their pain, their terror, and their murderous rage —sets an accurate tone of the tale, imagine it playing out on screen as the lovechild of The Wild Bunch and Lost in an all black Peyton Place.  And then every now and again Morrison throws out some doozy of a moniker or backstory tidbit and it might even feel a little bit like Soap!

Ruby is a second chance town—literally and figuratively, though it’s debatable if some people ever got a first. It was founded by nine families, only seven of which are represented in the children’s Nativity play that’s an amalgamation of town and biblical history after their first safe haven stopped prospering. On what seems to be a daily basis, the town’s elders wax nostalgic about, well, anything and everything that’s not happening in the present. That is except for everyone’s interest in the only spare Morgan heir, manwhore K.D. A marriage to Arnette Fleetwood, who K.D. got pregnant four years before, would appease his twin uncles who are ready for him to settle down; but he really wants Gigi who showed up in town looking for an obscene rock and has never left. Arnette’s best friend, Billie Delia, can’t stand K.D. but she is in love with two brothers, and despite the town’s certainly that she’s hot for a ménage, Billie Delia is purer than Arnette. Billie Delia’s mother is one of only two women in town who the handsome new minister might consider courting, but widow Pat Best is more interested in her town genealogy project filled with convoluted (and in some places incestuous) family trees alongside ‘quiet as its kept’ tidbits about the branches. What’s not quiet is the old reverend who can deliver a fire and brimstone sermon at a wedding sure to make any young couple want to elope, if the youngsters in town weren’t more concerned with hanging out at the Oven that’s only flaming a fire over its faded inscription rather than cooking any meals. Meanwhile, out at the Convent, Connie was blinded by the light, and annoyed with her roommates, has an awakening where art supplies and yoga poses make what has to be some interesting chalk outlines, foreshadowing the carnage that’s to come while at the same time freeing the girls from the pasts that haunts them.  When the town men let the seven deadly sins (or definitely five of them) get the best of them, they grab their guns, gum, and sunglasses and let their testosterone take over. It goes down as history usually does. Or does it?

Lost? You might be, but I don’t believe Morrison wrote any of it for shock value. There’s a message and plenty of social commentary littered throughout all that happens, at times almost poetic and lyrical, at times comical. There’s also enough misfortune, heartbreak, and injustice to make you cry from the tragedy of it all, flinch at the ignorance and baseness in people, and seethe when you consider or simply realize that while this story is fiction, it’s also the story of generations and generations of a not so pretty history of not just America but also mankind. There’s enough intrinsic commentary on religion, race, misogyny, gender relations, myth-making, memory, history, hypocrisy, and so much more to make the whole puzzle of it all worth it without hitting you over the head with the heavy themes. While some are blatant like the opening line, others are subtle, and if you fly through the pages too fast you might miss them.

It’s not a book to get hung up on spoilers. After all, Morrison starts the story with the climax. She tells you right off the bat, “They shoot the white girl first. With the rest they take their time.” Who is the white girl? ⚠Spoiler alert: You never know. And if another reader tries to tell you they are certain which one it is, they are as unreliable as the narrator of this story.
I’m guilty myself of trying to solve the opening line mystery as well as a few other intriguing ambiguities. Knowing there’s no definite answers maybe even makes me appreciate it all the more. I still look for clues like millions who flock to religion in search of answers even more unattainable. Ah, look what Morrison did there?

But mostly this is about the journey in the pages in between. While the novel starts with the men’s arrival at the convent for the last time and builds to the how and why their quest for purity and peace becomes tainted, bigoted, and bloodied, this is just as much, if not more, about how the women got where they are, were made  what they were, the obstacles that stood in their way, and the ties that bound and the shackles they broke.  Even when they are 17 miles from the town, separate from the community and “unequal” they are central to the world around them. And so perhaps it’s about how all women, marginalized and vilified, got where they are and still struggle to ascend in a world where witness testimony, histories, and religious scripture has been twisted to suit those in control much like the Ruby mens’ public proclamations for the slaughter are nothing but smoke screens, pathetic and thinly veiled excuses for the real selfish motivations that drive them to their patriarchal insanity.
“the women are not hiding. They are loose” (287).
For my romance reading friends if you’re looking for a break from that formulaic but smutastic genre, for something that delivers more substance, this is one to crack open and take a whirl at. 
Safety wise….
Well, it’s probably irrelevant because while the book is about love to the extreme, there’s no romance here. Nor is anything romanticized, which is really key. Arguably, there’s also no heroes or heroines. You could ponder through the entire book whether there is a protagonist. Or are there five of them? At least nine are antagonists. Are we getting into Morrison math again? It’s all as head-scratching as who the white girl is. I couldn’t even pass verdict on whether there’s an HEA. It’s like there isn’t…or is there?

There may be no right or wrong answers to the questions your mind will turn over when you start trying to connect the pieces of the intellectual puzzle that is this book.  Morrison herself said in an article back in 1998 that she’d rather have readers “grapple with her work than merely revere it.”   And in the vast sea of corruption that has plagued the contemporary romance world, that’s refreshing. It’s also a good reason to give the story a chance. Feel free to hit me up to chat if you do.


*I own a paperback copy of this book.  All reviews written by Book-Bosomed Book Blog are honest opinions.

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