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TERRY GROSS, host:

Any new novel by Nobel Prize-winning author Toni Morrison is a publishing event. But a new novel that's tied thematically to "Beloved" really makes readers take notice. Book critic Maureen Corrigan has a review of Morrison's latest work of fiction "A Mercy."

MAUREEN CORRIGAN: Tony Morrison's new novel "A Mercy" is being hailed as a kind of prequel to her masterpiece "Beloved." This is a claim sure to whip up excitement, since "Beloved," you may remember, was voted the best work of American fiction of the last 25 years by a panel of critical worthies convened by the New York Times in 2006. Oddly, the Times neglected to ask me what I thought. But if I had been invited, I would've put "Beloved" second and chosen any of Philip Roth's later novels as my first pick.

Between Morrison and Roth stretches one of the great divides in American fiction. There are American Olympians - like Melville, Faulkner and Morrison - who invent their own mytho-poetic language to capture America. And then, there are the Merry Pranksters of Profundity - like Twain, Ellison, Bellow and Roth - whose magic is composed in part of a homegrown American language of obscenities and wisecracks. I admire the first group while reveling in the second.

And that brings me back to "A Mercy" and to the point of this digression. "A Mercy" is Morrison at her most biblical. She is, after all, writing here about the American Eden and its original sin, slavery. Overall, this short novel represents the perfect joining of subject, the early days of the European colonization of America, to Morrison's oracular gifts as a writer. But depending on your own literary tastes, be forewarned; if "Beloved" was portentous, it still had its occasional flashes of cheer. Some characters still held on to their quirks. In "A Mercy," all excess decoration and lightheartedness has been burned off.

"A Mercy" is situated in the primordial American soup of the 1680s, where indentured servants and slaves and freemen intermingle. An Anglo-Dutch trader named Jacob Vaark reluctantly agrees to accept a payment in flesh from a plantation owner in Maryland who owes him money. Jacob first chooses a young black woman and her baby son. But that woman desperately begs Jacob to take her eight-year-old daughter instead, and he agrees. That girl, called Florence, is forever tortured by the fact that her mother sacrificed her while protecting her baby brother. Florence grows up at Jacob's northern homestead, which is populated by a Morrisonian signature community of women: Jacob's wife, Rebecca, who was a mail-order bride from England; Lina, a Native American woman now enslaved; and a mysterious mixed-race girl called Sorrow, who was found as a child living on an abandoned ship.

Time passes and Jacob is struck down by smallpox after he's overcome his distaste for trading in flesh and made a fortune in the Caribbean slave and sugar trade. The decorative iron gates of the mansion that Jacob is building out of his blood money are topped by serpents, a none-too-subtle symbol that Jacob himself has brought the snake into the garden. When the disease spreads to Rebecca, Florence is dispatched into the wilderness to find a free black metalsmith known for successfully treating the pox.

None of these women are vivid characters in the fully formed mold of Sethe or Baby Suggs or "Beloved." They are suggestions, allegories, even. What is powerfully distinct in "A Mercy" is Morrison's fluid vision of early America, what she calls a disorganized world. Here's her all-seeing narrator's description of Jacob disembarking from a sloop onto the shores of Maryland.

(Reading) The man moved through the surf, stepping carefully over pebbles and sand to shore. Fog, Atlantic and reeking of plant life, blanketed the bay and slowed him. Unlike the English fogs he had known since he could walk, this one was sun-fired, turning the world into thick, hot gold. As mud became swamp grass, he turned left, stepping gingerly until he stumbled against wooden planks leading up beach toward the village. Other than his own breath and tread, the world was soundless.

This kind of heightened language is better accepted coming from an omniscient narrator rather than a simple character. It's just too much when all the women here uniformly think and talk as though speaking for posterity. But almost all is forgiven when Morrison goes into a trance like this and, through her narrator, starts speaking in wondrous tongues. At those moments, she really awes me into believing that if the forest primeval could talk, it would sound like Toni Morrison.

GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She reviewed, "A Mercy," by Toni Morrison. You can hear Toni Morrison reading from "A Mercy" by going to our website, freshair.npr.org, where you can also download podcasts of our show.

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GROSS: Fresh Air's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our senior producer is Roberta Shorrock. Our engineer is Audrey Bentham. Dorothy Ferebee is our administrative assistant. Sue Spolan directed the show. I'm Terry Gross.

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