December 2008 – January 2009

Arts & Letters

‘A Mercy’ by Toni Morrison

By Chris Womersley

A Mercy sees America's last Nobel laureate for literature weighing in with her first novel in five years and returning to some of the themes explored in her most famous work, Beloved. Toni Morrison's ninth novel concerns the lives of four women on the Virginian property of an Anglo-Dutchman, Jacob Vaark, and their struggles in an era unfavourable to women, black or white. It is the late seventeenth century. The women are "orphans, each and all" and their fates, crucially, are subject to "the promise and threat of men". The slave trade is in its infancy and Jacob considers himself above such commerce, but on a whim he accepts an eight-year-old black girl called Florens as part-payment of a debt. This is the title's ambiguous act of mercy and the desperate act of a mother hoping to save her child, the consequences of which are tragic and unforseen.

Smallpox ravages the farm eight years later. Jacob dies; his wife, Rebekka, falls ill; and Florens, by now 16, is dispatched to locate a free black man who is known to be able to cure the sickness and with whom she is smitten. This journey forms the spine of A Mercy, and the narrative cycles between her first-person account of her travels and events as seen by the other characters.

This is a superior yet flawed historical novel, written in language largely sure-footed and occasionally beautiful. Rebekka fled religious persecution in England; a Native American woman, Lina, escaped the smallpox infection that devastated her tribe; and Sorrow survived a shipwreck. It is fertile ground, but while each woman has an interesting tale, none - aside from Florens - has much to do in the present of the story. As a result the novel lacks momentum, and the characters struggle to engage with each other and the reader. Florens' voice is idiosyncratic, veering between twee ("Hunger trembles me") and lyrical, but the other characters bear traces of research and too often their life stories groan beneath expositional digressions into the burgeoning sugar trade or gruesome punishments in merry old England. A Mercy illuminates some dark corners but is less successful as a novel about people attempting to keep their heads above the tide of histories, both personal and otherwise.

There is nowhere quite like The Monthly. We are told that we live in a time of diminished attention spans; a time where the 24-hour-news-cycle has produced a collective desire for hot takes and brief summaries of the news and ideas that effect us. But we don’t believe it. The need for considered, reflective, long-form journalism has never been greater, and for almost 20 years, that’s what The Monthly has offered, from some of our finest writers.

That kind of quality writing costs money, and requires the support of our readers. Your subscription to The Monthly allows us to be the home for the best, most considered, most substantial perspectives on the state of the world. It’s Australia’s only current affairs magazine, an indispensable home for cultural commentary, criticism and reviews, and home to personal and reflective essays that celebrate and elevate our humanity.

The Monthly doesn’t just comment on our culture, our society and our politics: it shapes it. And your subscription makes you part of that.

Select your digital subscription

Month selector

From the front page

Kim Williams seen through window with arms half-raised

The interesting Mr Williams

At a time when the ABC faces more pressure than ever before, is its new chair the right person for the job?

Illustration by Jeff Fisher

Letter from Dunkley

As a byelection draws the nation’s focus to the scrappy suburb of the author’s childhood, a visit reveals the damage wrought by the housing crisis

Exterior of the Department of Treasury, Canberra

Tax to grind

Tax reform should not be centred on what we want, but on who we want to be

Rehearsal for the ABC TV show ‘Cooking with Wine’, March 13, 1956

Whose ABC?

Amid questions of relevance and culture war hostilities, the ABC’s charter clearly makes the case for a government-funded national broadcaster

In This Issue


AC/DC’s Black Ice
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

The ant & the butterfly

Best Books for Summer 2008–09

Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

Panic & censor

More in Arts & Letters

Tony McNamara in New York City, January 2024

Pure things: Tony McNamara

How the Australian screenwriter of ‘Poor Things’, who cut his teeth on shows such as ‘The Secret Life of Us’, earnt his second Oscar nomination

Jeffrey Wright in ‘American Fiction’

The dread of the author: ‘American Fiction’ and ‘Argylle’

Cord Jefferson’s satire about Black artists fighting white perceptions of their work runs out of ideas, while Matthew Vaughn’s spy movie parody has no ideas of its own

David Malouf, March 2015 in Sydney

An imagined life: David Malouf

Celebrating the literary great’s 90th birthday with a visit to his incongruous home of Surfers Paradise to discuss a life in letters

Illustration by Jeff Fisher

Pictures of you

The award-winning author kicks off our new fiction series with a story of coming to terms with a troubled father’s obsessions

More in Noted

Cover of Lauren Oyler’s ‘No Judgement: On Being Critical’

Lauren Oyler’s ‘No Judgement’

The American author and critic’s essay collection moves from her gripes with contemporary cultural criticism to personal reflection

Cover of Sheila Heti’s ‘Alphabetical Diaries’

Sheila Heti’s ‘Alphabetical Diaries’

The Canadian writer’s presentation of sentence-long entries from her diaries, organised alphabetically, delivers a playful and unpredictable self-examination

Still from ‘Boy Swallows Universe’

‘Boy Swallows Universe’

The magical realism in Netflix’s adaptation of Trent Dalton’s bestselling novel derails its tender portrayal of family drama in 1980s Brisbane’s suburban fringe

Cover of ‘Kids Run the Show’

Delphine de Vigan’s ‘Kids Run the Show’

The French author’s fragmentary novel employs the horror genre to explore anxieties about intimacy, celebrity and our infatuation with life on screens

Online latest

Osamah Sami with members of his local mosque

In ‘House of Gods’, Sydney’s Muslim community gets to be complicated

Plus, Barnaby Joyce shines in ‘Nemesis’, Emma Seligman and Rachel Sennott deliver ‘Bottoms’, and Chloë Sevigny and Molly Ringwald step up for ‘Feud: Capote vs. The Swans’.

International Film Festival Rotterdam highlights

Films from Iran, Ukraine and Bundaberg were deserving winners at this year’s festival

Two women on a train smile and shake hands

‘Expats’ drills down on Hong Kong’s class divide

Plus, Netflix swallows Trent Dalton, Deborah Mailman remains in ‘Total Control’ and ‘Vanderpump Rules’ returns for another season

Image of a man playing music using electronics and the kora (West African harp)

Three overlooked albums of spiritual jazz from 2023

Recent releases by kora player John Haycock, trumpeter Matthew Halsall and 14-piece jazz ensemble Ancient Infinity Orchestra feel like a refuge from reality