Paradise by Toni Morrison

I listened to the audiobook of Toni Morrison’s Paradise (1997) while road-tripping last weekend up to Mackinac Island. Morrison read the audiobook herself, which added a layer of intonation and timing to the prose that I enjoyed. But the text is dense enough—with nonlinear storytelling, complex POVs, and lots of allusions—that I’m pretty sure I also missed some things because I couldn’t reread passages. I checked the plot synopsis on Wikipedia afterward, which confirmed that I hadn’t caught everything (someone painted a black-power fist on the oven in the town square?) and that some of the questions I hadn’t answered aren’t supposed to be answered (the reader is never able to learn which of the women staying at the convent was white and not black).

I read Morrison’s Beloved years ago, but honestly at this point I don’t remember much except that the book is amazing. I didn’t remember, for example, how economical Morrison is with her storytelling. Paradise only takes six and a half hours to read, but it contains a broad range of characters with many interrelated story lines. In keeping her narrative distance from any one character and moving fluidly between them, she’s able to cover a lot of plot in a little time. She also isn’t afraid to straight-up tell the reader important background or interior thoughts and feelings, though she does linger over significant scenes, painting vivid detail for readers.

Morrison’s narrative control is enviable as well. The plot is nonlinear, and she moves freely through the story’s events, working forward and backward through time, offering one character’s perspective and then circling back to that moment later from another character’s point of view. She allows the reader to see that she’s withholding information from us, but she slowly feeds it to us if we are willing to trust the story and hold on to the facts we do know. In some ways it reminded me of films like Christopher Nolan’s Memento, and I would be curious to reread Paradise sometime to better see how carefully Morrison foreshadows the book’s fallout and themes from the very beginning.

As a speculative fiction writer, I was curious to see light fantastical elements throughout the book. Beloved, famously, features the ghost of Sethe’s daughter as a central figure. In Paradise, Lone DuPres teaches Consolata enough magic that she is able to resuscitate Soane’s son after a fatal car crash, and Consolata in turns performs some magic with the women at the convent. Unlike a fantasy novel, where the magic would permeate the book and play directly into the (positive or negative) resolution of the book, however, magic doesn’t solve any of the narrative’s problems. Magic is relationally important for several characters, but that’s it.

The other potentially fantastic element is that readers aren’t sure whether Mavis, Grace, Seneca, and Pallas really meet up with their families at the end of the book, or if they are merely ghosts or visions. Morrison doesn’t feel any compunction to tie things up neatly at the end, which makes me uncomfortable but certainly leaves me thinking. The intersection of racism, colorism, and patriarchy that leads to the brutal attack on the convent women that both begins and ends the book is clearly traced throughout the book, but the last word given to the women themselves is unclear. Did they survive? Are they forging their own paths now? As a reader, I’m not sure.

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