Toni Morrison's A Mercy is set in the 1680s. "I wanted to separate race from slavery," she says. To do so, she moved as far as she could, "to when what we now call America was fluid, ad hoc."
This special presentation of A Mercy will run in four installments from Oct. 27 thru Oct. 30. "Book Tour" is a weekly Web feature and podcast that presents leading authors as they read from and discuss their work.
In this special edition of Book Tour, NPR is honored to be the first to present Pulitzer Prize-winner and Nobel laureate Toni Morrison reading from her new novel, A Mercy. A stunning return to form for Morrison, A Mercy deserves to be counted alongside some of her most acclaimed novels, such as Sula and Beloved.
The stories in A Mercy are as layered and contested as the barely mapped topology traversed by its characters. Set in the 1680s, when this country's reliance on slavery as an economic engine was just beginning, A Mercy explores the repercussions of an enslaved mother's desperate act: She offers her small daughter to a stranger in payment for her master's debt.
Four women are central to this narrative: a traumatized Native-American servant known as Lina; Florens, the coltish enslaved girl at the story's center; an enigmatic wild child named Sorrow; and Rebekka, their European mistress — kind, politically contrarian and reeling from the loss of one infant after another in her isolated homestead.
The book shifts dramatically in tone as it recounts the stories of these women and of the men who both stabilize and disrupt their worlds — mostly through love. Those men include Jacob Vaark, the farmer and reluctant slaveholder, and a formidable free black man known simply as "the blacksmith." Their ability to move through the world intoxicates these women, whose own travels — mostly under duress — have been vile and dangerous.
Readers familiar with Morrison's work will recognize its quietly chilling evocations of the supernatural and depictions of powerful relationships among women. A bride and her new husband's female servant eye each other with suspicion that mellows into genuine mutual affection. A motherless child clings painfully to a childless mother. Transformative maternity defines A Mercy, beginning and ending with the devil's bargain referred to in the title and explained in the novel's devastating conclusion.