Toni Morrison’s slim new novel, Love, may seem, at first glance, to fit within a group of books one could crudely call Morrison Lite, not requiring any heavy lifting from the reader like her masterpieces, Beloved and Song of Solomon. But the appearance is deceptive. A distillation of many of her earlier themes, notably the theft of girlhood and wars over times now gone, Love is a rich parable about the damaging past as a demagogue ruling the present. And as with a number of her books, the story is passed from one character to another and gathers details and clarity as it is seen from one angle, then the next. Like a multifaceted stone, this intimate tale of seven women and one man is cut to refract the light as each of its characters sees it, turning their eyes round a reflecting center.
That center, the late Bill Cosey, the owner of a once-popular black beach resort in the South, is the most prominent ghost in the novel, and as such he can seem empty like glass, idealized by memory like the moonlight on his hotel’s Sooker Bay. In other lights, he is cold, foolish or corrupt. But like other Morrison ghosts, Bill Cosey represents that damaging past. In the novel’s present, his child bride, Heed, and granddaughter, Christine, the only survivors of a much-romanticized past, are in a bitter struggle over ownership of his property, symbolized by a will written on an old hotel menu. When a streetwise and homeless young woman named Junior Viviane comes to their home to work for Heed (and, Junior quickly realizes, to help Heed secure control of the estate), memories are set free and a final battle is put into motion. In the course of this battle, the stories of all of Cosey’s women emerge, as well as a picture of a community of women that seems helpless, contentious and hateful.
Heed (her full name is Heed the Night), Cosey’s tenacious widow from the wrong side of the tracks, calls him “Papa” and prefers to remember him as the “wonderful man” who “picked her out of all he could have chosen. Knowing she had no schooling, no abilities, no proper raising…” Christine, Heed’s childhood friend, is a three-time runaway,a refugee from marriage and the Black Power movement. She sees herself as “the one left behind, Miss Second Best” and views Cosey as her betrayer. The two are caught in a fight to the death.
Love opens with a Morrison overture, weaving strains of the novel’s poetry into a mysterious beckoning into the story and the company of the ever-present ghost. This prologue is titled “Love”–one of the rare occasions in the book when the word is actually used. The narrator, slyly named only L., grabs her victims by the eyeballs with one of the author’s startling first sentences: “The women’s legs are spread wide open, so I hum.”
L. is herself a ghost, who explains that she is “an old woman embarrassed by the world,” and romances us into the 1940s, when “Cosey’s Hotel and Resort was the best and best-known vacation spot for colored folk on the East Coast.” The hotel, where L. was the well-loved cook, bragged of names from a glamorous past–Lil Green, Fatha Hines, Jimmy Lunceford–and the perfection of places long gone; it “had more handsome single men per square foot than anyplace outside of Atlanta or even Chicago.” Despite the hyperbole, the easy living 1940s milieu at the heart of the book feels lived down to the lemon cake, and the good times feel like familiar kitchen-table stories.
If Cosey is the enticing face of black success in “George Raft suits,” then L. is the black woman downstairs stirring the pots, raising the children, keeping the secrets, who leaves his funeral walking the beach in three-inch heels. L., whose name no one can remember, knows love as mercy. She is a perfect rendering of those shadowy African-Americans–surrogates and enablers–Morrison describes in a collection of lectures, Playing in the Dark, as lurking, ignored, yet defining all others in so much American fiction. She is an invention of the later Toni Morrison, a compassionate mediator between warring extremes.