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11.19.2002 by Julian, every Tuesday.

“’They shoot the white girl first. With the rest they can take their time.’ So begins this visionary work from the storyteller Newsweek hails as ‘the last classic American writer’;” so begins the blurb on the back of Toni Morrison’s Paradise.

The novel opens with a scene of horrific violence, as armed men prowl around an abandoned convent, gunning down the women who have taken up residence there. They are there so “that nothing inside or out rots the one all-black town worth the pain.” The rest of the book is an explanation of the events that lead up to the slaughter of the first scene.

Ruby is a small town in Oklahoma, founded by ex-slaves. The settlers, after being barred from settling in Fairly, a community of lighter-skinned blacks, attempted to create their own all-black utopia around a founding core of “8-Rock” men--the blackest of the black.

The community is closely knit and self-sufficient, suspicious of outsiders and, it is implied, inbred. Indeed, diluting the 8-rock bloodline is itself frowned upon, and light-skinned blacks are looked down upon. Hypocrisy and intolerance flourish in this society and Ruby is far from paradise. When things start to turn bad in the town, the men look for somewhere to place the blame.

The old convent is a refuge for a group of damaged women, a retreat where they can heal in a safe environment of mutual support. But the townspeople are suspicious of the isolated convent and its mysterious inhabitants, and when a scapegoat is needed for the town’s problems they are quick to label the convent women witches.

In interview, Morrison once said: "People's anticipation now more than ever for linear, chronological stories is intense because that's the way narrative is revealed in TV and movies. But we experience life as the present moment, the anticipation of the future, and a lot of slices of the past." This belief is evident in her writing style, and the book is difficult to read. She plunges straight into action and dialogue with no explanation of who’s who or what’s going on. The book constantly jumps back and forth in time, from one person’s point of view to another, with no warning. It doesn’t help that the book involves dozens of major characters, all with complicated relationships to one another. Morrison has to resort to having one of her characters construct a detailed family tree, which is described at great length in one chapter, just to help the reader get the characters straight. Even then it takes tremendous effort and concentration to follow.

Morrison is a favourite of Oprah, and when her third novel, Song of Solomon, was chosen for Oprah’s Book Club, it sold a million copies instantly. Morrison was also given the Nobel Prize for literature in 1993, after the publication of Jazz. Paradise was her much-anticipated first novel after winning. It received mixed responses at the time (the New York Times panned it, evidently), and my response is also mixed. Although I feel like this book has interesting things to say about utopias, about power relations, about revolutionaries and reactionaries, about racism and sexism, I don’t think it says any of them clearly enough. The book is muddled and confusing. I was left shrugging my shoulders, feeling vaguely unsettled.

And which of the women was the white girl, anyway?

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