A review of Love by Toni Morrison

The truth of these characters is something both suppressed and created by the man who has damaged them. Cosey’s influence, his power, is one which sits at the opposing pole to the power demonstrated, especially in the end, by Christine and Heed, but it is that pain which has made them who they are. Pivoting the story around a centre of male power and death, we ultimately find female love.

Reviewed by Magdalena Ball
Love
by Toni Morrison
Random House
ISBN 0701175109, hardcover, 224pgs, Nov 03, RRP A$49.95

If it is possible for a writing style to be truly female, Toni Morrison’s would have to be it. Her words are fluid, soft, and hover somewhere just below the skin. It isn’t just the themes, which are distinctly feminine – rape, violation, lost innocence, patriarchy, the nature of female vs male power – but also the very style of her narrative, the structures of her stories. In her latest novel, Love, the reader is presented with a series of separate narratives each revolving around the patriarchal centre of Bill Cosey, the deceased owner of the closed Cosey Hotel and Resort. 12 years after his death, Bill, the Good Man, is still a palpable presence in the story. Living together in the now otherwise empty mansion are Cosey’s widow Heed, and his granddaughter, Christine. Heed and Christine have stopped talking, and their mutual hatred forms the conflict which fuels the forward motion of the story. Both women are in the process of contesting Cosey’s will, scribbled onto a restaurant menu. Into this atmosphere of female hatred enters Junior, a smart alec tough street beauty. Junior, hired on the sly by Heed to help her “write her memoirs” along with a few other more devious things, develops her own private relationship with Cosey, and helps to move things along more quickly. The plotline follows Christine and Heed’s fight for Cosey’s house, and Junior’s story and own search for a kind of home crisscrosses through the other two lives. The real story is about something else though – about the true nature of the relationship between these women, self-realisation, and of course, love, hate’s converse:

Once – perhaps twice – a year, they punched, grabbed hair, wrestled, bit slapped. Never drawing blood, never apologising, never premeditating, yet drawn annually to pant through an exercise that was as much a rite as a fight. Finally they stopped, moved into an acid silence, and invented otherwasy to underscore bitterness. (73)

There are several narrative voices, each with its own unique character. The bodyless, ghostlike “below the range” L, Cosey’s former cook, speaks in an italicised memoir. Opening and shutting the novel, she provides the setting, history, and a slightly eerie quality to the book – a background hum:

I’m background – the movie music that comes along when the sweethearts see each other for the first time, or when the husband is walking the beachfront alone wondering if anybody saw him doing the bad thing he couldn’t help. My humming encourages people; frames their thoughts….(4)

She introduces us to the very poor folk of Up Beach, and the richer suburb of Silk, to Cosey’s glamorous Hotel and Resort, which became a 1940s retreat for upwardly mobile black east coasters. She also provides the monsters, from her own disapproving voice criticising wreckless females, to the police-heads, or wave monsters which eat “loose women and disobedient children.” Of course the only real monsters in this story are the very human ones.
There is Junior, settlement girl, correctional girl, with her wild hair, wild eyes, and high boots. Like the Cosey girls, she has been oppressed by men, abandoned, and found a kind of angry strength in response. She represents the present, although she comes with her own secrets of the past. Junior’s animal pride and attachment to Roman, the Cosey’s gardener and son of ex-employee and Cosey confidante Sandler and his wife Vita, provides a kind of catalyst for the novel’s denouement. Junior’s narrative is told in 3rd person, but is no less intimate. We know of Junior’s secret “relationship” with the “Good Man,” her desperation, her animal instincts, and her plans for controlling the Cosey household.

There are other narratives and stories too. The shadowy Celestial, the struggles of Roman, the dead May with her horror of civil rights and integration, and the recollections of Sandler. Each voice presents a different picture, a different set of experiences which finally, in the end, but only in the end, add up to the complete story. It can be difficult to follow at times, especially when we become submerged into another experience, or try to work out the curious relationship between Christine and Heed, although everything does become quite clear in the end. What is always clear is that, in the realm of the emotive, we are dealing with a very instinctive and feminine kind of truth. It is what Cixous calls “jouissance” – a kind of physical rather than linear history. In Love, we set out to discover what each character means – who they are beneath the surface skin – a real writing of the body:

Up here where the solitude is like the room of a dead child, the ocean has no scent or roar. The future is disintegrating along with the past. The landscape beyond this room is without color. Just a bleak ridge of stone and no one to imagine it otherwise, because that is the way it is – as, deep down, everyone knows. An unborn world where sound, any sound – the scratch of a claw, the flap of webbed feet – is a gift. Where a human voice is the only miracle and the only necessity. Language, when finally it comes, has the vigor of a felon pardoned after twenty-one years on hold. Sudden, raw, stripped to its underwear. (184)

The truth of these characters is something both suppressed and created by the man who has damaged them. Cosey’s influence, his power, is one which sits at the opposing pole to the power demonstrated, especially in the end, by Christine and Heed, but it is that pain which has made them who they are. Pivoting the story around a centre of male power and death, we ultimately find female love. Morrison’s stunning prose, at once bare and simplified and yet still lush, is as powerful and confronting as ever. For more information visit: Love

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