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Book review: Recitatif by Toni Morrison

book review

By Simon Demetriou

 It’s hard to find something to new to say about a book – or rather, a short story – that is already well known. Recitatif was first published in 1983, and has been much anthologised, widely read, and used to teach undergraduate students the art of prose analysis. But it has also just been reissued. Perhaps it is sad that the world needs this story now, and yet here we are.

The story follows two girls, Twyla – the narrator – and Roberta, who are ‘dumped’ at St Bonaventure’s girls’ home aged eight. We are told in the second paragraph that the girls are of different races. And we spend the rest of the story unable to know which girl belongs to which race – or which race belongs to which girl.

At the same time, while the reader’s central crisis is their own desire to apply racial labels – and, one would hope, the self-critical unease that comes from the strength of that desire – Twyla’s central crisis centres around Maggie, the mute ‘kitchen woman with legs like parentheses’. Maggie is the lowest of the low, without status, without voice. Twyla recalls that one day something happens to Maggie in the orchard of St Bonaventure’s, something awful. Yet the story does not allow Twyla to get straight in her mind the truth of Maggie’s identity (she is described as ‘sandy coloured’, but which race does she belong to?) or of Twyla’s and Roberta’s potential complicity in what happens to Maggie. The shared and contested memory of Maggie and the orchard form a source of both connection and strife between the girls as they grow to be mothers themselves.

It should be obvious just how relevant Recitatif remains for our world in these racially riven times. But there is also something new about this edition of Recitatif, and that is the introduction by Zadie Smith. Always worth reading, Smith is as generous and wise as ever, and she sums up the importance of Recitatif in the fact that Morrison teaches us that ‘beneath the “black-white” racial strife… there persists a global underclass of Maggies, unseen and unconsidered’, and allows us to ‘hope for a literature – and a society! – that recognises the somebody in everybody.’ If the story can teach more of us to recognise these same messages, perhaps it will not need to be reissued in another 40 years.


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