Book review: Sula by Toni Morrison

Why is it so much easier to write a negative review than a positive one? I can be funny and insightful whilst tearing a work of art to shreds, but if I like it I’m reduced to gormless statements like my toddler’s verdicts on everything: ‘Nice. Good. Fun. Thanks.’ 

I’m not by any means capable of writing the review that Sula deserves. I’ve started and stopped and done laundry and cooked dinner and washed dishes and watched TV and scrolled mindlessly on my phone rather than writing about this book. Probably because all I really have to say can be encapsulated thusly: Sula is brilliant. You should read it. Everybody should read it. 

I expected to hate it. This is infinitely embarrassing for somebody who has a degree in literature, but I have struggled previously with Toni Morrison. I was given Song of Solomon at around fourteen. I read it but I didn’t get it. Worse, in my teenage arrogance I thought the problem was Toni Morrison rather than me.  

I went into Sula expecting to have to force myself through it. I thought it would be well-written but tedious, removed from my life and experiences. Surprise – it’s not only great literature but also funny, shocking, rude, real, never boring.  

Those with men had had the sweetness sucked from their breath by ovens and steam kettless. Their children were like distant but exposed wounds whose aches were no less intimate because separate from their flesh.

Most reviews for Sula, and the blurb on the back of the book, talk about the relationship between Sula and Nel as the focal point of the book. And yet they only meet a quarter of the way into the book and we are told they become great friends rather than seeing this develop on the page. To my mind, their relationship is more important for what it tells us about the different ways of existing as a black woman in America at the time the book is set. 

Their evidence against Sula was contrived, but their conclusions about her were not. Sula was distinctly different. Eva’s arrogance and Hannah’s self-indulgence merged in her and, with a twist that was all her own imagination, she lived out her days exploring her own thoughts and emotions, giving them full reign, feeling no obligation to please anybody unless their pleasure pleased her.

The community surrounding these women is carefully set up and explored by Morrison. The narrative is bookended by sections which are the literary equivalent of the cinematic establishing shot. The eccentric Shadrack, founder of National Suicide Day, appears at both the beginning and end, as well as lurching ominously through some more of the book’s more dramatic moments. 

It was not death or dying that frightened him, but the unexpectedness of both. In sorting it all out, he hit on the notion that if one day a year were devoted to it, everybody could get it out of the way and the rest of the year would be safe and free. In this manner he instituted National Suicide Day.

The concept of National Suicide Day (a day when people are encouraged to joyously kill themselves to stave off the uncertainty of future disaster)encapsulates the at once funny and tragic nature of Sula. The book’s central themes are explored through this lens – the ways we try to save others from pain, and how often in doing so we end up hurting them more, how we think we know best how others should live and die, the fraught relationships we often have with family and society. 

“But the difference is they dying like a stump. Me, I’m going down like one of those redwoods. I sure did live in this world.” “Really? What have you got to show for it?” “Show? To who? Girl, I got my mind. And what goes on in it. Which is to say, I got me.” “Lonely, ain’t it?” “Yes. But my lonely is mine. Now your lonely is somebody else’s. Made by somebody else and handed to you. Ain’t that something? A secondhand lonely.”

Morrison’s characters are sympathetic and complex, particularly Nel and Sula, but most notable is her treatment of female desire. It’s extraordinary that in 2019 it still feels revolutionary to read a literary novel which deals with sex from a female point of view. Throughout university and in dutifully tackling prizewinning literature I’ve been subjected to so much male-gaze writing about women and sex. Morrison’s detailed, insightful novel is a revelation. 

She went to bed with men as frequently as she could. It was the only place where she could find what she was looking for: misery and the ability to feel deep sorrow.

This is not a book for the squeamish. Morrison uses arresting imagery to unflinchingly capture the most transcendental moments of life alongside the bleakest; the trickle of urine down a leg, a gorgeous summer day, a character burning her own son to death in his bed. On a single page we range from the tragic to the absurd, from Eve’s one leg to the ridiculous modified rocking horse she uses to get around.

I wish I could read Sula again for the first time. I wish I had read it long before I did. Read it now!

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