Review: Jazz by Toni Morrison

“What’s the world for you if you can’t make it up the way you want it?”

The early 20th century marked the growth of jazz music in America. In the 1920’s the music spread into parts such as New Orleans, and Harlem, the ‘City’ where we find the characters in Jazz. The music began way before it was labelled jazz, from the days of slavery when people would sing to pass time, to bleed away the sadness with their voices and to keep the African voice alive.

Louis Armstrong

What sets jazz music apart is the element of improvisation, which gives artists the ability to express themselves in any way they want, and still keep a soulful and enjoyable rhythm. This element is what I first noticed about the way this story mirrors the genre itself.

Middle-aged Joe Trace meets eighteen-year-old Dorcas when he’s selling cosmetics at her aunt’s place. Thereafter begins their affair and months later when Dorcas grows tired of him, he shoots her after following her to a party. Joe’s wife Violet arrives at the funeral and slashes the dead girl’s face with a knife. Some weeks after the funeral Violet starts visiting Dorcas’s aunt and the visits become regular. Meanwhile, Joe is lost in deep grief for this dead lover.     

Jazz music has travelled with black African-Americans, their experiences, struggles, pains, and joys, through song and dance. The narrator, whose identity we don’t know, tells the story and relates the scenes in the same change of notes, short and long, as in jazz music. We encounter the love triangle in many parts of the book, repeated in a way that reveals something new or reminds us of something we know.

Toni Morrison splits open the characters and feeds us the right pieces throughout the story, creating a sort of web that takes from their pasts and connects back to the present, to the love triangle and its tragedy. We discover pieces from these characters’ fractured identities and come to understand how they are connected without them knowing they are, and why they behave the way they do.

I read Sula before Jazz and whereas with the former I loved the story and the characters more, with the latter I absolutely loved the storytelling. It felt like I was reading a long beautiful poem. I do have to mention, however, that I had tried to read it about three times and couldn’t get past the first chapter and once I finally got into it I figured it was because you have to stay with the narrator and not get lost. For me, it required my full attention, unlike other books that I’ve read with less focus and could still follow.

Jazz is an unforgettable piece of art. It’s powerful literature that achieves the goal of leaving the reader moved and having learned something deep and valuable about the human condition, as good literature often does. The characters come to you in flesh and bone, and throughout the story, you taste their realness and hear their voices. Their individual stories, which the narrator reveals by travelling back and forth through time, become so palpable and make it possible for the reader to keep diving in for more and more.

Brilliant. Exquisite. Important.

⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

Review: Sula by Toni Morrison

Nel and Sula share an intense friendship while growing up in the neighbourhood of Bottom, the hills above the valley town of Medallion, Ohio. Nel comes from a neat and orderly home and a rigid and conventional family, while Sula comes from a disorderly household, a family of disregard for social conventions. Sula has a fiery spirit and can’t sustain any emotion for long while Nel appears to be more consistent. However, with their contrasting personalities, they both have distant mothers and both have an adventurous spirit, along with an urge to explore whatever beckons their curiosity and interest.

Sula comes from a family of strong and independent women who enjoyed maleness, and that enjoyment they took and did with it in their own design and rules. Sula’s grandmother Eva has a regular flock of male callers but for its own sake and not really to sleep with. Hannah, Sula’s mother, attaches no passion to her relationships with men and is into spontaneous sexual adventures with mostly friends’ and neighbours’ husbands.

Around the time that Nel marries, Sula goes off to study and returns ten years later on a peculiar day, which makes people suspicious of her. She hasn’t changed – still the same with her sharp tongue, feisty attitude and determined to live her own life by her own rules. Their friendship is broken when she betrays Nel. Sula is vilified by everyone and they believe that she leaves behind chaos wherever she passes. All these beliefs bring them together against one evil, and they start improving their family lives. When Sula is dying, Nel finally pays her a visit.

Sula is a provocative read that examines good and evil and confronts the idea of morality. It questions what we believe to be moral and not. We see good and evil as things that change with perspective and sometimes with convenience. For example, the married men who see no evil when they cheat on their wives and sleep with Sula but vilify her when she sleeps with white men.

I love the way Auntie Morrison shows us how the make-up of a home and a family, knits into the fabric of a person’s character. Just like her mother and grandmother, Sula shows a blatant disregard for social code and does whatever pleases her. We also get to witness friendships and the things that affect and influence them.

I absolutely love the way she brings out female independence, personal and sexual liberty, and individualism. The Peace women are unapologetically what they say they are and if anyone doesn’t like it they can go suck it. A lot of stories, especially set around the same period (1919 to mid-1960s) usually have docile women who took what they were given as their lot in life and readily accepted a position of belonging to men. The Peace women, even after a husband who left, one who died and a lover who disappears as soon as he sees signs of serious feelings, they belong to themselves.

“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.”
― Toni Morrison, Sula

If you’ve read any of Auntie Morrison’s work then don’t expect any less. Her words are agents of transformation and her characters become a sort of transportation for the reader to a place of empowerment. As long ago as the story is set, it can easily speak in a language that our generation can understand. Sula is a powerful book – satisfying, heavy and intelligent.