Toni Morrison's new book, "A Mercy," tackles the very origins of America's blood-soaked racial history. Set in Virginia during the last decade of the 17th century, the story follows four women bound to farmer Jacob Vaark: his wife, Rebekka, a woman "unleavened" by the death of her children; the Native American Lina, who lost her village to smallpox and finds refuge on the farm; Sorrow, a wild girl with a broken mind; and Florens, a young slave whose faltering but poetic voice forms the novel's heartbeat.
Jacob's reluctant involvement with the slave trade brings wealth to the family farm, but also sickness. When Rebekka grows ill, the tenuous equilibrium between the four women is shattered and Florens must go in search of her lover, a free black man who happens to be a healer and can save Rebekka's life. At its best, Morrison's prose is haunting and dreamlike, and her narrative command is masterly, as she unrelentingly frustrates her characters' aspirations.
"A Mercy" returns to the dark themes of Morrison's earlier novels—racism, violence, lust—but it is also more ambiguous about race relations than her other work, and it expends more energy exploring the related issues of power, poverty and the struggle for personal freedom. With its narrative weft of dependence and salvation, "A Mercy" is a timely reminder of the fragile hopes that have bound America's inhabitants to each other, from our earliest days into the present.