I have been emphasizing reading history and philosophy recently because I thought I had been reading too many novels. I thought, and still do on the whole, that my nonfiction reading was giving me more understanding of the human condition than stories. Toni Morrison's novel "Sula" (1973)brought me back to the poignancy, beauty, and depiction of life's difficult ambiguities that fiction at its best can achieve. Sula is a poetic, difficult, and heartrending short book. In its portrayal of African American women and the tension between sexuality and independence it reminded me of Zora Neale Hurston's novel "Their Eyes were Watching God" (1937). A less obvious parallel to "Sula" is Tennessee Williams. His plays, with their portrayal of both sexual freedom and sexual repression mirror the themes of Morrison's novel.
"Sula" is set in a segregated African American community on a hill in the town of Medallion, Ohio, overlooking the white part of the town located in the more prosperous valley. The story is told chronologically and set in two parts. The first part covers the years 1919-1927. Following a break of ten years, the second part covers the years 1937-- 1941, with a final chapter taking place in 1965. The African American community or "Bottoms" with its small four-block commercial strip called Carpenter's Row with its pool hall, ice cream parlor, hairdresser ("Irene's Palace of Cosmetology") and theater is itself the major character of this novel. In addition to the town, the book focuses on the life long friendship between two women with contrasting backgrounds and approaches to life. The title character, Sula, is raised by her grandmother, Eva, who has lost a leg in mysterious circumstances and by her mother, Hannah. Eva's husband Boyboy abandoned her with three children after five years of marriage and Hannah's husband died. Both Eva and Hannah enjoy the company of men and the latter is promiscuous.
Sula's friend Nel is the product of a conservative, stable home with traditional values. Her mother, Helene, was, however, the daughter of a Creole prostitute in New Orleans and Helene was raised by her grandmother. Early in the book, Helene and Nel travel south to attend Helene's grandmother's funeral, a trip which has a lasting influence on Nel, even though, for the remainder of her long life Nel never leaves the Bottoms again. Nel marries a man named Jude while Sula attends college away from Medallion followed by a series of short affairs in many large cities. During the period of their girlhood, their friendship is forged by guilt and by repeated violence involving Eva, Hannah, and the two girls themselves.
The second part of the book begins after Sula returns to the Bottoms after ten years away. She has stormy, exposing scenes with both her mother Eva and Nel and is scorned by the town because she sleeps indiscriminately with all the men. Much of the second part of the book is internalized as Morrison's characters explore their motivations, pasts, and relationships to each other.
A great deal of the story is told elliptically, symbolically, and through indirection. Many passages will bear several rereadings to be understood. For example, a key event in the story occurs in the aftermath of one of the incidents of violence involving Sula. In a state of shock and incomprehension, Sula visits a mad, isolated WW I veteran, Shadrack, who lives by himself in an old shack along the river. Sula is frightened by what she has done and frightened by Shadrack. During the visit, Shadrack says only the one word which is the title of this review. Morrison recounts the incident twice, the first time from the perspective of Sula when it occurs and the second time, years later, from the perspective of Shadrack. This enigmatic, haunting incident and the event on which it is based is at the heart of the novel.
The book is short but makes use of foreshadowing as events and themes touched upon at one point of the story come to be seen of great significance further on. The tone of the book is meditative. Unlike some readers, I found the book for the most part unideological. Morrison details relationships between African Americans and whites over the first half of the Twentieth Century and explores tensions between sexuality, convention, love, and loneliness that are part of racial issues but that also have meaning on their own. The book left me with a feeling of sorrow and loss and with a renewed appreciation of why I read novels.