Sunday 6th March, in the laundrette again
Several of the later critical essays in the Norton Critical Edition of Nella Larsen’s Passing I recently read referenced Sula, a 1973 novel by American Nobel laureate Toni Morrison. The reason why this novel was discussed was due to some similarities in its themes: female friendship, jealousy, hypocritical and inconstant expectations of personal conduct, and also because it ends tragically, with the death of the “less conventional” woman.
Sula Peace may be the titular figure, but she isn’t the key character in the novel, instead the text mostly places the reader in the close third person perspective of Sula’s best friend, Nel Wright. The two girls are close when they are children, and both of them witness – and are unable to forget – the drowning of a younger child who was playing with them on a riverbank. Although the death wasn’t intentional or even, really, the fault of either of the girls, their decisions to neither jump into the water after the boy and to not tell anyone what happened, definitely implicates each of them in their own eyes, and likely in the eyes of a less sympathetic reader (which this book must have had as the cover mentions Sula was selected for “Oprah’s Book Club”, and I cannot imagine that cross-section of American society doesn’t contain some very conservative people, as most Americans are to the right of most normal people, right? Their politicians definitely are!)
I didn’t read Sula waiting for retribution for the accidental death, but I did read it quickly, enraptured, pulled in deep and tight by Morrison’s blunt, efficient, direct prose, with its occasional fluttering lyricism.
The novel unfolds chronologically, from around the turn of the last century through to the middle of the 1960s, by which point all the characters featured before are old or – mostly – dead.
Jumping from character to character over the first half of the novel, Morrison evokes a community and a place, exploring the ways in which Reconstruction failed a particular Black community in the mid west (if Ohio is the mid west), and then how the increasing globalisation of the twentieth century impacted (capital and conscription into foreign wars) on the people and the places they call home.
Sula is a beautiful, deeply moving text about the disappointments and the unfairness of life, of the cruelty of psychological and physical decline, of the corruption of capital and government, of the joy-crushing problems of profoundly structural racism.
Sula leaves the town for a decade in her early adulthood and sees more of the world. She comes back, home, tho, and lives miserably for decades, growing more hated by the town as she fucks and dismisses her way through all the town’s married men, finally losing her last friend when she fucks Nel’s long-non-devoted husband, which is read as betrayal and theft, rather than as the blunt and inevitable revelation of Nel’s unequal marriage.
It is an overwhelmingly sad novel, just as life is an overwhelmingly sad experience.
I handed in my resignation at my job yesterday, and I will be moving back to London in a couple of months. My lover has received a job offer too good to turn down, and when I realised it was fear – a bad emotion – that held me back from embracing the move rather than any realistic misgivings, I decided to give my employer a long notice period and start thinking about building a life yet again.
Hopefully this move will start better than my last move to London and will end better, too (see my books). Last time I moved to London, I was mugged within a week, and left it indebted, alone, depressed but with a kernel of hope. I need to find that hope again. Quitting my job has already begun that process.
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