Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison

Symbolic, but of what? 

🙂 🙂 🙂

Macon Dead III has grown up in Michigan, the son of a harsh, property-owning landlord and the local black doctor’s daughter. In the course of the book, he will travel to the South, to Virginia, where he will learn more about the history of his family, his metaphorical roots, and to some degree, find his own identity and the meaning of his life.

Sometimes it depends when we read a story how much we connect to it, and unfortunately I read this at a time when I probably wasn’t giving it the attention it requires. I’m not therefore going to try to write an in-depth review – these are simply my feelings about the book, which I found disappointing.

The prose is very good, of course, sometimes excellent, though never, in my view, with the poetry and power of some of the prose in Beloved. The story takes forever to kick off, well into the second half before I felt I had any clear idea of what the book was attempting to be about. The last third or so was considerably more interesting and enjoyable than the rest of the book which dragged along at a snail’s pace replacing narrative drive with heavy-handed and yet still obscure symbolism.

Most of the characters have Biblical names and I assume that’s supposed to have some significance. I freely admit that, as a lifelong atheist, my knowledge of Bible stories is sketchy, but I couldn’t tie what little I knew about the Biblical originals to the characters at all. Maybe this was a failing on my part, but I can usually cope with religious symbolism well enough. Here I found the names and my attempt to see their relevance a distraction. The symbolism regarding flight and African folklore worked rather better for me.

The other thing that bothered me may well again say more about me than the book; namely, that the lives of the people in this black community seem full of self-created ugliness and near bestiality. Everything is about sex or bodily functions – no-one seems to even try to lift themselves above the animal passions, intellectually or morally. Is urinating on other people normal in black American communities? I wouldn’t have though so, but it seems to be in this one. Maybe that’s symbolic too, but of what? Necrophilia, incest, women suckling their sons in a highly sexualised way, women wanting to kill or die for the loss of lovers, men beating women and each other – I longed for at least a couple of characters to connect on a rational rather than a physical level. To a degree in the early part of the book, Macon and his childhood friend Guitar achieve this, but their friendship gradually distorts into a strange and unconvincing kind of violent hatred.

Toni Morrison

I wondered if perhaps Morrison was trying to show how the history of slavery and subjugation had brutalised black culture, with perhaps even a call to arms for black people to support and lift each other rather than submitting to the characterisation and caricaturing allocated to them by the dominant white culture. But I felt maybe I was inventing that to give me some reason not to simply be a bit revolted by it all. I reckon if a white author had portrayed black people like this there would have been outrage, and in my view, rightly so. So I gave myself permission to be a little outraged anyway, since I’ve never fully bought into the idea that being part of a culture confers a greater right to abuse and demean it (which is why you’ll never see an Irvine Welsh book on my blog). I found myself asking: if African-American culture is really as universally debased and degraded as this portrayal suggests, how did Toni Morrison manage to rise from it?

And what on earth is the significance of Pilate having no navel?? (This is not a rhetorical question – if you know or have a theory, I’m interested…)

Nope, I feel I either didn’t understand this at all, or else there’s nothing much to understand beneath the over-heavy symbolism and the basic story of the resonating, brutalising impact of slavery and racism; although the eloquent prose made it readable and even enjoyable in parts. Apologies to all who love it. Maybe I’ll read it again sometime when I’m in a more receptive frame of mind. Or maybe not.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

41 thoughts on “Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison

    • I think I was so blown away by Beloved any other book of hers was never going to meet my expectations, but I really found the society in this one had no redeeming features, which meant I couldn’t totally accept it as a realistic portrayal…

  1. I’m sorry to hear this one disappointed you, FictionFan. I think you make an excellent point about the way our reading is impacted by when we read a book, and what our own experiences and backgrounds have been. I think that really does play a role. I probably wouldn’t have ‘gotten’ some of the symbolism in this one, either.

    • Certainly I read a few books around that time which I felt I enjoyed less than I expected to, so I’m pretty sure my own mood was part of the problem here. But I also felt it was a very harsh portrayal of a society with few redeeming features, and as always I have difficulty believing in things that are unrelentingly bleak…

    • This is only my second, and the first was Beloved, which I thought was one of the best books I’ve ever read. But this one just didn’t have the same effect on me at all. It won’t stop me trying her again though!

    • I think a whole combination of things meant that I didn’t connect with this the way I did with Beloved, but I’m still looking forward to reading some of her other books. 🙂

    • I’m sure there were lots of cultural nuances I missed too but this was such a bleak portrayal of African-American culture I found it hard to accept. As for Christian symbolism, although I’m atheist, I’ve lived in a Christian society all my life so I do usually “get” Christian symbolism more than I did with this one…

  2. Not my cup of tea, I’m afraid. The graphic sex and bodily functions would make this especially off-putting to me. Even as a lifelong Christian, I’m not sure the symbolism would resonate. Ah, well, tick another off your TBR and go soothe your ruffled feathers with some chocolate!

    • I must admit I did find all the bodily stuff quite off-putting – maybe older British literature is too sanitised, but I vastly prefer not to read about certain subjects! And as for the Christian symbolism, I do usually “get” it purely because I’ve lived all my life in a Christian culture even if I’m not religious myself, but in this one I was scratching my head… oh well! Nothing chocolate won’t cure! 😀

    • I think I’d maybe have liked it a little more if I’d read it at a different time, but I didn’t think it was even close to the standard of Beloved, which blew me away when I read it a couple of years ago.

    • Ha! To be fair, I haven’t read any of Irvine Welsh’s books – never got past the first few pages! But he’s a Scot who chooses to live abroad for tax reasons, yet makes his money by writing about the very worst aspects of Scottish life. His books concentrate on a small subsection of society – the foul-mouthed violent losers, junkies, alcoholics, low-level criminals – and present them as if that’s a true reflection of Scotland as a whole. What really annoys me is that he sells well abroad, and for a lot of readers that’ll be the only impression they get of us. I’d rather they read Ian Rankin or Val McDermid, or any other author who gives a more balanced and true picture of us.

      • Hmm yes I never thought about it like that, but I can definitely see where you are coming from. If it’s any consolation, I definitely don’t see Scottish people that way 🙂

        • I’m relieved! It’s such a cliché and stereotype that even a lot of Scots see ourselves that way. I think that’s partly why I get annoyed when I see people from other cultures accepting a negative view of their own culture – very few, if any, cultures have no redeeming features!

  3. I don’t think I’ve ever read a Toni Morrison book (maybe an essay or two?) and from what you’ve shared here, can’t imagine wanting to read this one! Too many of those things sound totally off-putting. As for your question… I’m a Christian and I’ve never seen any reference before to Pilate not having a navel. Of course I’m totally guessing with this, but maybe it means he was created (but by whom??) rather than born of a woman? Even that really makes no sense. 🙄

    • I loved Beloved, so highly recommend it if you ever decide to try one of her books, but this one really didn’t work for me. Ha – the even odder thing in the book is that Pilate is female! I think Morrison was making a point about how African-Americans struggled with names because of the history of slaves being named by their owners, or something. Good suggestion about the navel thing! But I couldn’t see why Pilate was made “different” – she didn’t seem to do anything in the book to justify it… all very weird!

  4. I’m sorry this one didn’t work for you, FF! I loved this when I read it a few years ago. But I have to admit, there were things about it I didn’t understand. I think I let myself get lost in the language and sort of didn’t think too deeply about it. It’s one I would reread so perhaps I will pay more attention to symbolism next time.

  5. This sounds horrid. The character’s behaviours don’t appeal to me at all, not at all surprised you didn’t either. If the references are too obscure, then ugliness is just ugliness. Beloved is still on my list after your review of it some time ago.

    • Beloved is far better in my opinion. This one just seemed so relentlessly ugly that even the excellent prose couldn’t lift it, and if she was making some great point, I missed it…

  6. I’m totally with you about the impact of the circumstances in which one reads a book. It’s happened to me often and is something I consider carefully now. I have never read anything by Toni Morrison: she’s been on the list for a very long time. When I finally give her a try I shall not begin with this one. I suspect I shall never get around to this one. We can’t connect with everything we read – and I can’t see a way in which I’d connect here. THanks for the heads up, FF 🙂

    • Yes, after a couple of reads I felt sure I would enjoy more, I stopped reading serious books for a few weeks and indulged in lots of favourite crime authors until my mood got back to being more like normal. I absolutely loved Beloved, so if you ever do get around her I strongly recommend it. It’s full of symbolism too, and tough subjects, but somehow it all worked for me in that one…

  7. Too bad this wasn’t a better read. I’ve found Toni Morrison’s work to be hard but worthwhile, though not relentlessly vicious the way you’re describing here. As a Christian, I have no theories as to why Pilate wouldn’t have a naval. It never comes up in the Bible!

    • The whole navel thing totally baffled me. It kept being referred to, so clearly it had some significance but not to me, unfortunately! I suspect I was harsher on this one than I would have been if I’d read it at a different time, but it didn’t even approach the impact Beloved had on me. I’ve got a few more of her books on my TBR, so hopefully this was just a blip…

  8. Ironically this had made me want to read it to see for myself, to be able to join the conversation. I never read anything grotesque, violent or scary so your review is very intriguing. Thank you.

    • I certainly thinks it’s worth reading for its status as a modern classic, if nothing else, plus so many people love it that I’m happy to admit that maybe I just didn’t “get” it. If you do read it, I’d love to hear what you think… 😀

      Thanks for popping in and commenting!

  9. I read through the comments to see if anyone had read this particular Morrison because I’m curious about other perspectives. I haven’t read this one either or Beloved but to date, The Bluest Eye is the one I liked best because it resonated with me so much. Morrison is one I know I’ve had to be prepared for mentally but feel like this one might fall into the category with Sula if I get around to it. Glad I read Sula but it feel short for me in a few ways. I know we won’t connect to every book and every character but there needs to be something about the book I can sink my teeth into.

    • I thought loads of people would have read it – I was surprised nobody seems to have. It gets lots of positive reviews on Goodreads, and others that are more like mine. The Bluest Eye is on my TBR so it’s good to know you rate that one highly. I loved Beloved – one of the best books I’ve ever read – which may have meant my expectations were too high for this one. Sula is also on my list, but I’ll try to lower my expectations a bit before I get to it then. With this one, I just felt the picture of the black characters was too bleak – in Beloved, things are bleak too, but there’s still love and hope…

Please leave a comment - I'd love to know who's visiting and what you think...of the post, of the book, of the blog, of life, of chocolate...

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.