"The problem," opines a woman in Toni Morrison's new novel Love, "is what to do about revenge." She's looking down on the characters of this wrenching tale, people who stew in long undead hatreds, unforgotten recriminations, and a spouse dead but not relinquished. "You can see why families make the best enemies," she elaborates. "They have time and convenience to honey-butter the wickedness they prefer. Shortsighted, though. What good does it do to keep a favorite hate going when the very person you've poisoned your life with is the one (maybe the only one) able or willing to carry you to the bathroom when you can't get there on your own?"
This monologue is just one of a few moments in Love where Morrison steps forward to frame the situation at hand. For the remaining pages, the reader is left adrift in a sea of ghosts, chasing, as do her female characters, the vapor trail of truth. Love concerns five of these women and the charming man who obsesses and possesses them from beyond his grave. Each character speaks in a distinctive voice and harbors a unique set of grievances--angles of influence in their claim over the legacy of deceased Bill Cosey, a self-made millionaire who owned a once-posh vacation spot called Cosey's Hotel and Resort.
Cosey, we learn much later, bought the resort from a failing white business owner. Though this man was determined not to sell to a black man, his bias softened when, in the depths of the Depression, Cosey stepped forward with an offer. In good time Cosey turned the shambling hotel into a place where blacks could dress well and dance, musicians could enter through the front door, and gambling could take place without the threat of violence. Before its demise it was famous.
Although the novel begins in 1975, most of the action takes place in the decades prior to that, when blacks in the South were struggling for civil rights, then rioting for them, then finding themselves uneasy with how to exercise them. The women in Cosey's life all represent different positions on that timeline. There's May, Cosey's daughter, who toiled in the kitchen and front office of his operation to make his hotel a place so beautiful and solid that institutionalized white hatred would be invisible. Christine, Cosey's granddaughter, grew up under the auspices of this hard-won largesse, but somehow wound up poor and destitute, rich in rights, but deprived of them all by the snake pit of women coiled under Cosey's front porch. Heed is Cosey's second wife, taken at age 11, whose life goal is to make Christine know her place.
Overlooking the action is L., a cook who worked at the resort, where all these women crossed paths at one time or another. L. is a Greek chorus to Morrison's rotating catfight--which also includes Junior, a woman hired to help Heed out at the Cosey home, and several other women in the neighborhood. L. riffs on the loose morals of the younger women, the concrete-hearted stubbornness of the older ones. She is almost above lust herself, and at one point goes so far as to claim the ocean as her man: "He knows when to rear and hump his back, when to be quiet and simply watch a woman. He can be devious, but he's not a false-hearted man."
This is an awfully high road to take in romance, but understandable given the firefights we witness throughout the novel. This review could be twice as long and still not begin to untangle the plotlines of who hates whom and why. And in fact, one of the pleasures of Love comes in watching Morrison ravel and unravel these resentments: There are arson attempts and scratching brawls, knives displayed and testaments betrayed. Suffice it to say these are serious grudges.
As Morrison rotates from one character to another, depicting her in present and then in the past through the eyes of her enemies, the title of this book grows more layered. The love Morrison writes of both warms and devours, and her characters have yet to find the balance between the two. Love of family often counters love of a man; love of a man often turns familial love to hatred. This is not life but war. Appropriate to such conflict, the language is taut but passionate, full of spoken idioms and the whirl and whoosh of hurricane weather, which ravages the Florida town where the novel unfolds.
Water in all its various forms--ice, vapor, rain, and snow--appears and reappears in this book like a talisman. All of this hatred will be washed away someday, the suggestion is--but not yet. The moon, that tide-governing and mind-troubling force, appears throughout, too, speaking to characters with spooky intimacy. Thinking back on his childhood, one man mourns for the day when it was his: "He wanted his own moon again releasing a wide gold finger to travel the waves and point directly at him."
This same sense of singularity is what causes all the problems in Love. Each woman felt like Cosey was hers, when in reality he belonged only to himself. That doesn't stop this cast from fighting for the tiniest foothold on their shared past. Even the reader has to scrabble for purchase, as a good chunk of the book passes before the characters' precise roles become clear. Rife with flashbacks and L.'s teeth-sucking voice-overs, the book leaks out its information like clues in a murder case. Page by page, Morrison's hide-and-seek game is sucking the reader into her novel's fetid atmosphere, where people think they know about one another, while what they truly know best is their own envy and avarice.