Barack Obama’s election as President of the United States of America last month was exhilarating, on one plane of analysis, because of his rapid rise in a field packed with cynical practitioners, his ability to connect with citizens and make common cause with opponents, and his promise of a politics of greater intelligence and integrity than we have seen recently from the world’s only superpower. But Obama’s victory also carried an enormous redemptive charge because it symbolically closed the circle on centuries of black suffering and subjugation that gave the lie to the American claim of liberty and equality for all, and that continued to flourish as a current of resentment, scepticism and disharmony in contemporary American life.

An original: This is Morrison’s first new novel in five years. Timothy Greenfield-Sanders/Random House via Bloomberg

In A Mercy—a title as clipped and resonant as those of previous works such as Jazz, Beloved, Paradise, Sula and Tar Baby—Morrison ventures further back into American time than ever before, and drops us into a small farm in Virginia in 1690. America is not a republic yet, a collection of colonies of settlers from different parts of Europe. The slave trade is still in its infancy, and the greatest sufferers in the recent past are the native Americans, large numbers of whom have been decimated by colonial wars and by the smallpox virus carried by Europeans. In this precarious world, wracked by hardship and disease, ordered and regulated by a fierce and unyielding Protestant world view that we would today call fundamentalist, we are led into the house of an Anglo-Dutch farmer and trader, Jacob Vaark, and his strange collection of women.

A Mercy: Chatto & Windus, 166 pages, Rs700.

The beauty of Morrison’s novel is all in its intensity: It concentrates into a little more than 150 pages the stories of these five disparate people who form a motley family. Turning from one character to another, Morrison constructs a vivid mosaic of mutual dependence and private grief, presented in a language of Shakespearean grandeur and homeliness.

Jacob and his wife, unfortunate to begin with, have something like an ideal marriage; they “leaned on each other root and crown", but their life is blighted by the repeated death, in infancy, of several children. Lina has been schooled in European practices and beliefs but remains puzzled by the ways of the settlers, especially their hunger for possession and appetite for destruction: “Cut loose from the earth’s soul, they insisted on purchase of its soil, and like all orphans they were insatiable." Florens is captivated by a blacksmith who comes to work on the Vaark estate, and becomes giddy with love. “I am happy the world is breaking open for us," she quavers, “but its newness trembles me."

Morrison has a talent for writing marvellous scenes: at a tavern men shout in “liquored glee"; Jacob first appears out of a fog that is “sun fired, turning the world into thick, hot gold"; Rebekka’s fellow women passengers in the dark hold of the ship, a set of thieves and prostitutes, lay out a meal with “the manners of queens".

Her work always asserts the dignity of human relationships and striving, and at the same time the fragility of human structures in a deeply unjust and rapacious world. Her characters are in search, in unpromising circumstances, “of a way to be in the world". This sinewy narrative, in which not a sentence is wasted and the moral and artistic possibilities of the material are expertly marshalled, glows just like Jacob Vaark’s ghost in a late scene in the novel—one of many ghosts in the books of a writer whose very work is to raise the spirits of the dead.

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