The lushly talented Toni Morrison does not lack for award recognition. Among her many honors are the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction (1988), the Nobel Prize for Literature (1993), and the Presidential Medal of Freedom (2012). This month she adds one more, the PEN/Saul Bellow for Achievement in American Fiction, for work which the panel calls “revelatory, intelligent, bold.” If you haven’t yet been introduced, attempting to begin with the well-recognized but difficult Beloved or Song of Solomon might be challenging. Allow us to suggest three alternate pathways to make her acquaintance.
A searing tale about the way childhood trauma shapes and misshapes the life of the adult. At the center: a woman who calls herself Bride, whose stunning blue-black skin is only one element of her beauty, her boldness and confidence, her success in life; but which caused her light-skinned mother to deny her even the simplest forms of love.
Why start here? Morrison’s most recent work, and her first set in current time, underscores many of her trademark themes in a concise but powerful 178 pages.
Two girls who grow up to become women. Two friends who become something worse than enemies. Nel and Sula meet as children in the small town of Medallion, Ohio. Their devotion is fierce enough to withstand bullies and the burden of a dreadful secret, but will it withstand a betrayal?
Why start here? Another short work (174 p.), this is a deceptively simple narrative about a character who overcomes tragedies to reinvent herself as a bold, sensual, unapologetic individual at a time when women were expected to know their places.
Set in 1926, at the height of the Harlem Renaissance, Jazz follows the lives of Joe and Violet Vace, who have moved from the South to escape the hardships of segregation. They find a city throbbing with the music that represents both artistic freedom and moral decline, an environment that sets the backdrop for Joe’s murder of his teenage lover as well as the shocking events that follow.
Why start here? Slightly longer (229 p.), but still a richly compact sampling of Morrison’s skill in depicting complicated characters and emotions in few, expertly chosen words. The influence of jazz music suffuses both setting and structure, and the themes reverberate long after the final note.