During lockdown, I joined my first ever book club. It’s not that I have anything against them but I never do very well when I discuss books with other people. I was the same at university. I was always the shy one in seminars who would never speak out unless picked on. I was better in pairs or small groups but I’m still the kind of person who is much better on paper. It also doesn’t help that I’m so easily swayed by a good argument. Our latest read was Sula by Toni Morrison and I was one of the few people who had enjoyed it. However, the moment the rest of the group started criticising it, all of my beliefs went out of the window. Basically, I lack confidence and conviction. Book groups aren’t great for the combo.
Sula is a quick read but still deals with plenty of the themes that Toni Morrison is best known for. It is a book that tells Black stories and gives Black women a voice. It discusses the limitations on women, particularly those in Black communities, and what happens when they break away from their expected path. It does so through the stories of two friends who bond over their similarities but quickly find themselves going in opposite directions.
Nel Wright and Sula Peace have a lot more in common than they might have first expected and quickly become close. Both girls are the only children of distant mothers and absent fathers. Although they are raised by some very different women. Nel by her strict mother who cares very deeply about sticking to social convention. She crumbles in front of authority and doesn’t want to stick out. Sula was brought up by her mother and grandmother in a house that was full of life. Her mother was known for sleeping with the married men of the town and her grandmother was seen as an intimidating but worthy figure.
Though Nel vows to not end up like her mother, she eventually winds up getting married and settling into motherhood. Sula escapes their town to see what else the world has to offer. When Sula returns home, it becomes clear that the connection between the two is fragmented beyond repair. The two girls, who were once so close that they felt like one person, have grown into women who are unfamiliar to each other. Try as they might, they cannot recreate the feelings that once held them together.
Like all of Toni Morrison’s writing, Sula is beautiful, dense and poetic. She manages to paint a fantastic picture of life in the community of the Bottom. It is a complex story but it manages to encapsulate the ups and downs of female friendship. In just under 200 pages, Morrison takes us on a journey of over 40 years. We follow these girls but learn their story through the characters who live beside them. The fact that the story is told through so many different people is more proof that a woman’s role in society is seen as dependent on others. Women are meant to become wives and mothers. Their stories become entangled in the lives of other people, so why not tell the story this way?
What is interesting about Sula is the fact that she, the title character, is absent for so many years. There is a very large period of her life that is secret to us. She is removed from her own story and we are left to fill in the gaps. Not only does this highlight the place that Black women hold in society but also the idea that identity is partially a construct of other people. The book requires that readers fill in the gaps and read between the lines so, in a sense, they become part of the process of discovery. Sula is the kind of character you read her to be and relates to your own identity. Similarly, the people of her hometown see her as a certain type of person and that helps their self-discovery.
Sula isn’t necessarily the easiest book to get along with and it might take a bit more commitment than some of Morrison’s other books. I do think that it is worth it though. It brings up some fascinating themes and is an important part of literary history. Even if you’re just here for the writing, giving this a read is well worth it. The language is lush but controlled. Morrison is very careful not to waste a single one and gets to the point as simply as possible. This won’t be a book for people who need plenty of plot to drive them forwards. It’s a slow burner but it will get you thinking.