Sula by Toni Morrison

Who needs enemies?

😀 😀 😀 😀

Well, I might as well be up front – if this book has a point, it sailed straight over my head. Two girls grow up, lots of people kill other people and themselves, everyone has sex all the time with anyone who happens to be passing. And in the rare moment when they stop to catch their breath, they think about sex.

I’ll leave it to Morrison scholars to analyse it. I loved Beloved and A Mercy, because I felt I understood what she was trying to say. Song of Solomon and this defeat me. She portrays black life as animalistic, where people eat and rut and rut and eat; and resent, neglect and beat their children; and betray and kill each other for little or no reason. She writes about black culture in a way that, if it were written by a white author, would be rightly trashed as the peak of racism. I’ve tried both times to assume she’s saying that white oppression has made black Americans behave this way, but I’m not convinced – neither that I’m right about her intention nor that it’s a realistic portrayal of black American culture. I hope it isn’t, anyway.

Morrison does make a couple of points about the subjugation of black people, legally free in the ‘20s and ‘30s, when the book is mainly set, but still excluded from all the benefits of freedom, including well-paid jobs and the possibility of a career, leading to a kind of crisis of masculinity in the men. She also makes reference to the black men whom white America called upon to fight their wars for them, and then abandoned on their return to deal with the after-effects without help (though I expect that was true of a lot of white men too, especially after WW1. It certainly was in the UK). These were the strongest parts of the book for me, but they were merely side issues.

Toni Morrison

The writing is as wonderful as her writing always is, and I certainly enjoyed reading it. The characters are entirely vile, especially Sula, who starts out bad and gets progressively worse as she ages. Her friend Nel is more ambiguous but, while I started out quite liking her, it wore off, and I felt they were a pretty good match for each other – a real illustration of the old phrase, with friends like these, who needs enemies? Many things are left unexplained, but it’s entertaining and at points even amusing, with a couple of well-done shock moments. But I felt nothing for any of them, because I didn’t believe in them as real people.

Entertaining, then, and maybe you’ll do better at finding a meaning in it than I did. Or maybe there isn’t one, and the entertainment is the point. In which case, job well done!

Book 19 of 20

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39 thoughts on “Sula by Toni Morrison

  1. It seems very odd for a black woman to write about black people’s lives that way, especially as there doesn’t seem to be any redeeming features or characters. Glad you enjoyed it though.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. This does not sound appealing – a shame as I’ve seen enough quotes from Morrison over the years to know that she writes brilliantly, but all the graphic sex and violence is enough to put me off! I will probably try one of her novels one day, since she’s so well known as a classic author, but I probably won’t try this one.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Despite the sex and violence it is actually quite enjoyable to read. For me, it’s all so over the top that I can’t quite take it seriously, but I suspect I’m missing the point because I don’t fully understand her perspective. Beloved, however, is a fabulous book – much clearer message and some truly wonderful prose!

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  3. At least you enjoyed it, all be it for the wrong reasons by the sound of it. It’s not for me I’m afraid, gratuitous sex and violence doesn’t appeal at all, even in gest. I will read Beloved instead as an introduction to her work.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’d definitely recommend Beloved most of the ones I’ve read so far. It’s extremely harrowing in parts, but not at all gratuitous, and although it’s not an easy read, for me it has a much clearer message than this one. And her prose is gorgeous – so powerful!

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  4. Morrison’s writing really is beautiful, FictionFan, and I’m glad you saw that here. I’m not a Morrison scholar, so I’m not in any position to say what she was hoping to achieve here, or what the message is supposed to be. As you say, perhaps there isn’t one. Either way, she does her characters very well, in my view, so that even if you don’t like them at all, you remember them.

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    • It’s her prose that I love most, although in these lighter ones it doesn’t have quite the same power as in Beloved, which I still think is one of the greatest books I’ve ever read. I think perhaps reading it first means I’m always looking for deep profundity in her work, which maybe sometimes just isn’t there. Or else I miss it because our life perspectives are just too different. Still a good read though!

      Liked by 1 person

    • I did actually enjoy it despite not quite seeing what, if anything, she was trying to say, but I don’t think it comes close to Beloved in either message or power. For me, Beloved is one of the truly great books of the twentieth century.

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  5. After reading your review, I find myself puzzled at your awarding it four stars. Perhaps Morrison’s writing is beautiful enough to compensate for characters you didn’t particularly like, as well as overuse of violence, sex, and pure misery?? Anyway, this one’s not for me. I find it disconcerting that a black author would focus on the negative aspects of black culture when there’s already enough tension between the races. Not that one has to write fairy tales, of course, but surely there’s some good in the black experience, isn’t there?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Really because my stars are just an indication of my enjoyment rather than a critical evaluation, and despite not quite knowing what she was trying to say in this, I still enjoyed reading it! I do love her prose, and while I find it hard to believe in the society she portrays, she always make it interesting. I do find the negativity odd, though, but I wonder if she meant it to be negative or if it’s just my different perspective that makes me see it that way? Don’t know…

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I don’t think I’ll begin my Toni Morrison experience with this one.

    There might be those who would contradict me, but I’d say even today our veterans (of any color) aren’t always treated as they should be. While the VA (Veteran’s Administration) might be good in some respects, it’s had major problems for decades. My husband would attest to that even as far back as when he came home from Vietnam. (and talk about a war in which homecoming soldiers were mistreated….)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, I think our veterans are better treated now but still not always as well as they should be. But after WW1, there were so many of them, and so many awful injuries both physical and emotional, that I guess our systems couldn’t have coped even if our governments had cared enough to want to, which I’m not sure they did. Vietnam was the worst, though – at least after the world wars the men were seen as heroes even if they weren’t treated that way. But the way the Vietnam vets were treated was awful.

      My first Morrison was Beloved, and for me it’s by far the best!

      Liked by 1 person

  7. I know I have Sula, and think I read it years ago, but I can’t recall much about it. I have several others, including Beloved and The Bluest Eye. I’m sure that there’s some interview out there in the great land of Youtube where Morrison talks about Sula. Maybe that would be helpful to see if it sheds any light on what she was trying to achieve?

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’ve been so far behind with this 20 Books challenge I’m having to write reviews the moment I finish the book, which doesn’t give me time to read other reviews, etc., as I normally would if a book baffled me. For me, Beloved is still head and shoulders above anything else of hers I’ve read…

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Ugh reading about that kind of misery right now…I’m just not sure I can do it. I’m not intentionally avoiding serious books, but this just seems…too much for me. I can only handle so much sadness. I really need to get off twitter too LOL

    Liked by 1 person

  9. I wish I could remember something of this story to make a more meaningful comment. I only remember continuing to be very motivated to keep reading all Toni Morrison’s work, and feeling immersed when I did. Maybe time for a reread sometime.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I love her writing and will go on reading her books too, but sometimes her meaning, if there is one, escapes me. The way she shows black culture always seems appalling to me – a bit like all those gritty Scottish crime novels that make us out to be a lot of swearing, drunken, violent gangsters. I’m sure she must do it for a reason, but what that reason is beats me!

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