When it comes to a writer’s work (or even a musician’s work), OCD surfaces and demands I read all the author’s books in chronological order. In an ideal world I’d follow through but it would bankrupt me. The alternative is to borrow books from the local library but that doesn’t work either – they never have the book you want when you want.
My local library is city hall. It’s in one of the most well-heeled business districts on the planet – a short walk from HSBC’s headquarters, the Mandarin Oriental and the Hong Kong Club - but city hall fell asleep in the mid 80s and no one has bothered to wake it up. It got left behind in the boom as the city snowballed into a financial monster. Hey, I want my Raymond Carver and I want my Fran Lebowitz but city hall ain’t gonna give it up.
Life, however, never fails to mystify and as soon as you say to yourself “I don’t want it, I don’t need it” then the thing will appear. Of course, the other big mystery is that it doesn’t work all the time but when it does it’s pretty cool. This time it worked. There on the shelf (on the wrong shelf at that) was Toni Morrison’s first novel.
The story is about black, eleven-year-old Pecola Breedlove and how she yearns for blue eyes. The story is set in 1941, when the ideal of good looks was blonde hair and blue eyes. The events unfold through several storytellers. Claudia, a young girl herself, begins the narrative when Pecola comes to stay in the family home, “Mama had told us two days earlier that a ‘case’ was coming – a girl who had no place to go.” A heinous violation has been committed and Pecola is cast out of her home.
The blue eyes Pecola is desperate for is a manifestation of her own self-loathing, thrust upon her by her family and society’s warped vision of beauty. Pecola’s story is heartbreaking. Nothing and no one can save her from her inevitable downfall.
But the book is not just about Pecola. It’s about how the inequalities of gender, race and class work against individuals bringing disintegration and destruction within society.
This book was written during the height of the civil rights movement in America. Its subject matter couldn’t have been more apt considering the wake-up call Americans were getting regarding the major inequalities in society. The issues in the book still apply in light of the police brutality that continues in America today.
Toni Morrison’s writing is crisp, clear and fresh. Her language is poetic and her phrasing is melodic. I flinched at the descriptions of cruelty and violence. The Bluest Eye is banned in some high schools in America. They say it’s too brutal for teenage minds but not everyone agrees and there’s an ongoing debate about it. A point made is that teenagers already have access to horrific violence and brutality over the internet.
I will definitely seek out any other Toni Morrison though city hall will be deciding which book I should read next.