The violence men inflict on women and the painful irony of an "all-black town" whose citizens themselves become oppressors are the central themes of Morrison's rich, symphonic seventh novel (after Jazz, 1992, etc.). The story begins with a scene of Faulknerian intensity: In 1976, in rural Oklahoma, nine men from the nearby town of Ruby attack a former convent now occupied by women fleeing from abusive husbands or lovers, or otherwise unhappy pasts--"women who chose themselves for company," whose solidarity and solitude rebuke the male-dominated culture that now exacts its revenge. That sounds simplistic, but the novel isn't, because Morrison makes of it a many-layered mystery, interweaving the individual stories of these women with an amazingly compact social history of Ruby's "founding" families and their interrelationships over several decades. It all comes at us in fragments, and we gradually piece together the tale of black freedmen after the Civil War gradually acquiring land and power, taking pride in the cultur e they've built--vividly symbolized by a memorial called "the Oven," the site of a communal field kitchen into whose stone is etched the biblical command "Beware the Furrow of His Brow." That wrathful prophecy is fulfilled as the years pass, feuds between families and even a rivalry between twin brothers grow ever more dangerous, and in the wake of "the desolation that rose after King's murder," Ruby succumbs to militancy; a Black Power fist is painted on the Oven, and the handwriting is on the wall. With astonishing fluency, Morrison connects the histories of the Convent's insulted and injured women with that of the community they oppose but cannot escape. Only her very occasional resort to digressive (and accusatory) summary (e.g., "They think they have outfoxed the whiteman when in fact they imitate him") mars the pristine surface of an otherwise impeccably composed, deeply disturbing story. Not perfect--but a breathtaking, risk-taking major work that will have readers feverishly, and fearfully turning the pages.