There is the faintest whiff of the moralizer in the final pages of Nobel Prize winner Toni Morrison's short but stunning new novel, A Mercy. There she solves the puzzle of why she has chosen the title of this heartrending book, in which shocking, unmerciful things happen to the vulnerable characters we most wish to protect.

The singular mercy Morrison invokes in the closing pages is itself agonizing and perplexing, a sort of Sophie's choice. But that mercy leads a reader to consider other, more profound questions: the spiritual costs of holding another human being in bondage; the costs of surrendering one's self - possession and responsibilities to others, thereby participating in one's own enslavement; the material and moral economies of freedom itself.

A Mercy is set in the 1680s and 1690s in the raw European settlements of Maryland and New York during the earliest years of the slave trade. Jacob Vaark, a self - made man, himself more or less an orphan, travels from Dutch - English New York to the Catholic colony of Maryland to collect a debt from an aristocratic plantation owner. He is offered the young slave girl Florens as partial payment of the debt, and partly out of empathy for the young girl, he accepts. Goodman Vaark is compromised by his decision and so, in her eagerness to be loved, is Florens. Similar moral ambiguities invest the other characters who appear in the novel: Lina, a Native American brought into the household after the devastation of her tribe; Sorrow, abandoned in the wreckage of a foundering ship; Rebekka, Vaark's bride, put out to marriage by her distressed family in England; and the artistic African blacksmith, a free man, with whom Florens falls so disastrously in love.

Morrison's story unfolds in overlapping perspectives and is carried forward by astonishingly beautiful, often incantatory language that summons vivid dreamscapes and suggests an American history that seems more emotionally and physically real than reality itself. In A Mercy, Morrison creates a vast living, breathing world in very few pages. It is a marvel.

Alden Mudge writes from Berkeley, California.

 

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