To be honest, I had forgotten about Toni Morrison. Not insofar as I had forgotten that I had read her, or that I had enjoyed her writing, but I had forgotten precisely why. Now I remember. Tar Baby got under my skin in a way that no book – apart from Eating Animals – has done in a long time. And it is an apt metaphor; Morrison’s writing cuts right into the heart of our ideas about race and race relations. The colour of your skin, as a reader, is part and parcel of your experience of reading her work. This book made my lunch break seem simultaneously like a month-long immersion, and a split second; I was never ready to put it down, it made the everyday seem limp.
This is not a love story. The blurb on the back of my (very eighties) copy ends with the teasing: “He is a threat to her freedom: she is a threat to his identity..” I read the back of the book when I was half way through it, and couldn’t quite believe how glib this phrase sounded, and how incongruous it felt next to the book I was actually reading. There is a central relationship, yes. But the real action of the book takes place through the two main protagonists’ relationships with their friends and family, and in the subconscious of the central female character, Jadine.
It is the subconscious ur-narrative, and the ring of magical realism in Tar Baby that made me sit up and remember the other Morrison novel I had read; Beloved. These are the passages where Morrison’s scope and talent and resonance run wild, and they are stunning. There is an extended metaphor about the life-cycle of queen ants that she uses to describe a particular feeling, which almost had me in tears in a crowded park in central London. It’s powerful stuff and no mistake.
This is not a novel about two people in love. This is a novel about race relations and racial identity; about the modern relationship between black and white people, but also between black people from different countries and cultures; as well as the history of oppression, femininity and its racial context, ‘culture’ and education. It’s about the strained relationship between inheritance and freedom.
I’ll say no more, because everyone should read it. Read it.