“The women’s legs are spread wide open, so I hum.”
I Am surprised no one has tried to film of this excellent book such is the lure of the dancing and parties at the hotel, the scenic beach side setting both in its heyday and later collapse and in the crackling dialogue. Hitchcock might have done Morrison proud.
Neither of its more taboo elements like a child bride and a gang rape are quite so central to the plot that they could not be airbrushed out to leave a moody ghostly story of the Up Beach hotel, the changing mores from the 1940s to the 1970s, portraits still draped in song, sexualisation, secrets and cold beer.
It reminds me strongly of Grace Metallious’s underrated classic Peyton Place, although a film and TV series did not do that epic original novel any favours. Here we are on the other side of the tracks again, only this time it is trailer trash amplified by the colour of one’s skin. It is the same gossip, the same small town confederacy, the same family confessional. I could almost hear in the narration a female version of Morgan Freeman whispering how it was, back then.
The story telling is fairy tale in its construction, a chocolate box in which each character gets a wash – here the caramel cream, here the walnut whip. They duck and dive between recollections and the present, from spoken words to inner thoughts, from the now to the then, often with no warning except a paragraph break. Sometimes it is quite brusque and stark as in this from the overture, it is:
“a story of how brazen women can take a good man down”.
And there is a brooding menace as to whether the older generation can or will take the next down with it.
“The problem for those left alive is what to do about revenge – how to escape the sweetness of its rot”
The plot is not so complex, but Morrison gives you one fragment at a time, so the drawing is never quite a full picture as she roams down the family tree and pokes into the darker recesses of why a homeless girl should turn up looking for a job, what drove May mad, why would Christine and Heed hate each other anyway, who is the mercurial L, the narrator in her kitchen, let alone the scarred and eccentric Celeste?
The male characters get a little more affection. All the sins of the granddaddy Cosey are forgiven by almost everybody while his female counterparts like the central squabbling siblings, the ghouls of Monarch Street are embalmed bitterness and their thoughts forensically revealed, the unpicking of a quilt. But even when the characters hate each other, we are lulled into their universe, seduced perhaps into pulling up a rocking chair in the old house such is the generosity in here, the lack of judgment, the sense of real people, an old lady worrying about the bath, her sister about her rings, a girl about a boy. Is there by any chance cornbread in the kitchen? Or anything left of that lamb that burnt in the oven?
This was Morrison’s eight novel published in 2003 so slips in as qualifying as 21st century although her canon has been eulogized elsewhere as a doyenne of 20th century, a Nobel prize winner in 1993, the Aretha Franklin of American literature perhaps, with a touch of James Baldwin. She is not outside looking in, but right under the duvet with her people.
“Most of my race has forgotten the beauty of meaning much by saying little.”
Her gimlet eye conjures and plays with her setting, the seaside town fallen on harder times, her prejudices, or those of her cast. in ways that draw you into their psychodramas. For choice, I would want to read this on Up Beach itself or another seaside town on the USA east coast, not too far south though.
I can only find one reference to a Morrison film adaptation that being Beloved but there was a stage adaptation of her first book Blue Eyes. I do like her real name which was Chloe Ardelia Wooford, she only became Toni after converting to Catholicism, aged 12 , when she chose the baptismal (Christian) name Anthony after the saint of Padua, the patron of lost things.