Wisdom From Kammbia Book Review 115: Sula by Toni Morrison

by | Nov 1, 2022 | 2022 Book Reviews, Marion's Favorite Books, Marion's Favorites, Marion's Reading Life Blog, Toni Morrison, Wisdom From Kammbia Column | 0 comments

“Outlaw women are fascinating—not always for their behavior, but because historically woman are seen as naturally disruptive and their status is an illegal one from birth if it is not under the rule of men. In much literature a woman’s escape from male rule led to regret, misery, if not complete disaster. In Sula, I wanted to explore the consequences of what that escape might be, on not only a conventional black society, but on female friendship.”

Toni Morrison wrote the aforementioned words in the last paragraph of the foreword to the latest edition of her second novel, Sula.  Sula was published in November 1973, and she began writing this tale of female friendship in 1969. America at that time (like now) was going through political and societal change. Morrison took a personal story of best friends in a fictional small midwestern Ohio town and made it universal amongst the dynamics of human relationships and societal change.

Nel Wright has been accepted by the community called The Bottom in the fictional town of Medallion. The Bottom is an all-black community and became its own character in the novel. Nel grew up in a stable home despite not having a father. Sula Peace grew up in opposite conditions. She has turbulent relationships with her mother Hannah and grandmother Eva. Hannah and Eva were seen as eccentrics to the community and that branding got passed on to Sula.

Despite their differences, Sula and Nel became best friends. They shared everything as children.  However, there was an incident with a neighborhood boy that started a crack into their friendship and cemented their roles within the community. Sula left town for ten years and when she returned ends up betraying their relationship causing the end of Nel’s marriage to a man named Jude.

Morrison does an incredible job exploring the friendship in a way I had not read in fiction before. This passage from the second half of the novel describes in this manner:

“She had clung to Nel as the closest thing to both another and a self only to discover that she and Nel were not one and the same thing. She had no thought at all of causing Nel pain when she bedded down with Jude. They had always shared the affection of other people: compared how a boy kissed, what line he used with one and the other.

Marriage, apparently, had changed all that, but having had no intimate knowledge of marriage, having lived in a house with women who thought all men available, and selected from among them with a care only for their tastes, she was ill prepared for the possessiveness of the one person, she felt close to.”

Morrison dissects the friendship spot on.  The adverb, apparently, is the key word of those paragraphs and illuminates how Sula has no boundaries and while Nel does. Also, this is excellent writing and shows the power of prose fiction at the highest level.

Sula is not regarded as Morrison’s best novel.  That is still to come with Song of Solomon & Beloved. I will dare write that Sula should be regarded as one of her best. I have written in that past that I have not been a Morrison fan as a reader. I have read three other novels (Song of Solomon, Jazz, & Paradise) that have left me lukewarm after reading them.  However, that has changed in 2022 after reading her only published short story, Recitatif and this novel.  Even though, Sula was published nearly fifty years ago, the novel displays Morrison’s storytelling talent, the conservatism of the black community, pre-Civil Rights era, and the complexity of female friendship in a story less than 180 pages.

Sula joins Erasure by Percival Everett and The Wood Wife by Terri Windling as my favorite reads for this year. Morrison’s second novel is a worthy book club selection (I know Oprah chose it her book club) and a great place to start for Morrison newcomers.


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