"Scouring contemporary insights—in prose as lithe and potent as vines in a rain forest."
Morrison's fine-tuned, high-strung characters this time—black and white Americans caught up together in a "wide and breezy" house on a Caribbean island—may lack the psychic wingspread of Sula or Milkman of Song of Solomon. Yet within the swift of her dazzlingly mythic/animistic fancies, and dialogue sharp as drum raps, they carry her speculations—about black and white relationships and black female identity—as lightly as racing silks. Slim, trim, coolly witty Valerian Street, a retired white Philadelphia candy manufacturer partnered by querulous second wife Margaret (once "Maine's Principal Beauty"), is the wily Prospero for his household of obligated attendants. The strange musics of the island, however, are heard better by the natives—like near-blind Theresa, who knows the island's slave legends. Somewhere in between are Valerian's excellent, elderly black retainers: butler Sidney, starched by his old pride in being "one of the industrious Philadelphia Negroes"; and his wife, Ondine the cook, who nurses swollen feet and curses the Principal Beauty. And the crown of Sidney and Ondine's lives is their stunning niece Jade, to whom Sidney serves food immaculately on silver trays as she dines with Valerian (who financed her superior education abroad). But this delicate assortment of nervous dependencies begins to shiver with the shattering arrival of Son, an unkempt American black man on the run, one of the "undocumented." Valerian, amused by the horror of the household, invites Son as a guest; once cleaned and beautiful, Son begins his courtship of Jade, a woman fearful of a devouring sexuality and a black affirmation. And then, at Christmas dinner, the six of this unlikely peaceable kingdom sit down together only to writhe in a lavaslide of raw, inter-locked revelation and ancient rage. Result: Jade and Son flee to the States, where she—an educated, restless city woman—has a future, while he has only a past: woman-cosseted, woman-dominating. She says: "Mama-spoiled black man, will you mature with me?" He says: "Culture-bearing black woman, whose culture are you bearing?" They try to rescue each other, but their lives cannot mesh: Jade will be a worker, a neuter, rejecting nurturing and heading for Paris; grieving Son will be led by Theresa to a ghostly liberation. Read full book review >