Some people complain that 19th-century fiction takes too long to get going. But does it really? Once the hero’s pedigree is out of the way, the Victorian novel moves resolutely forward. The contemporary narrative, on the other hand, offers a quick thrill up front that readers must pay off, in a kind of installment plan, by enduring one flashback after another.
Take Toni Morrison’s new novel, A Mercy. Set in the American colonies in the 1680s, it tells of an Anglo-Dutch trader who gathers around him no fewer than four traumatized girls. First he buys Lina, a Native American survivor of a smallpox epidemic, to help manage his household. Then, after negotiating another “sale,” he marries a 16-year-old English girl whose parents always treated her with “glazed indifference.” Then he takes in a young orphan called Sorrow. Finally he accepts, as payment for a debt, a slave girl called Florens. There is too much common ground among these characters for the reader to have an easy time keeping them apart. A little conflict might have helped, but Morrison will not even let them compete for a visiting blacksmith—a free black man and, it would seem, the only attractive male in the New World. Perhaps this tendency to idealize the exploited is part of our literary tradition as a whole. Where the European writer condemns poverty for bringing out the worst in people, the American condemns it for oppressing such fine and decent folk; compare Germinal, say, with The Grapes of Wrath. Morrison, too, is so busy showcasing her characters’ nobility that we get little sense of what hardship can really do to the human spirit. One of the girls “wears bright blue beads and dances in secret at first light when the moon is small”: there’s too much of that sort of thing.