A photo of Toni Morrison, smiling

Toni Morrison. Image: Michael Lionstar

Toni Morrison wrote her first novel in 1970, after a career in publishing where she championed writers including Angela Davis. Morrison, who died aged 88 in 2019, was the first African-American woman to win the Nobel Prize in Literature and earnt a place in the hearts and bookshelves of readers the world over. 

As well as novels, Morrison also wrote plays, articles, anthologies, children’s books, short fiction, non-fiction, and even a libretto for the opera Margaret Garner. She read her audio books herself – even into her late eighties.

There is, in short, a lot of Morrison to catch up on. So where to start? Here we offer one route in to a lifetime of writing.

The Bluest Eye (1970)

Written on scraps of receipts, on kitchen worktops while cooking her sons breakfast, The Bluest Eye was Morrison’s debut, released as something of a surprise while she was working as an editor at Random House.

The Bluest Eye set the tone for her work to come: unabashedly confronting difficult themes, in this case of racism, incest and assault, with an innate sense of humanity and undeniably poetic prose.

None of this was hidden away: the quote on The Bluest Eye’s first ever cover read: “Quiet as it’s kept, there were no marigolds in the fall of 1941. We thought, at the time, that it was because Pecola was having her father’s baby that the marigolds did not grow.”

Beloved (1987)

The one that won her a Pulitzer. Beloved may be Morrison’s best-known book, but it is also one of the greatest novels of recent American history.  In the wake of the American Civil War, the novel was inspired by true story of Margaret Garner, an enslaved woman who escaped to the free state of Ohio in 1856. When she and her daughter were captured, Garner killed her daughter rather than see her enslaved. With Beloved, Morrison imagines Sethe (the Garner-like character) is revisited by her daughter beloved. Morrison dedicated Beloved to the “Sixty Million and more” African people who, like Garner, were enslaved.

Song of Solomon (1977)

In the lobby of Random House’s New York offices there are towering cases filled with the publishing house’s most-prized books. Among a copy of Moby-Dick and Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man stands Song of Solomon. Morrison’s third novel was also the one that truly helped her to break into the mainstream, winning the National Book Critics Circle Award and becoming the first Morrison book (of many) to be selected for Oprah’s Book Club – a legitimately enormous platform.

Essentially a coming-of-age novel, Song of Solomon is imbued with Morrison’s strong understanding of the novelistic tradition, and plays with myth and magical-realism as her central character, Macon “Milkman” Dead III, gets to grips with his violent heritage. The book paved the way for Morrison’s vividly original later work.

Sula (1973)

Morrison’s second book, Sula, started with “my preoccupation with a picture of a woman and the way in which I heard her name pronounced. Her name was Hannah, and I think she was a friend of my mother’s... what I remember most is how the women said her name: how they said “Hannah Peace” and smiled to themselves, and there was some secret about her that they knew, which they didn’t talk about, at least not in my hearing, but it seemed loaded in the way in which they said her name.”

The girls-turned-women in Sula share a similar unspoken history. Childhood best friends, their paths as adults couldn’t be more different: while Nel settles in their hometown to raise a family, Sula escapes for the progressive ideals of the big city. When Sula reappears ten years later, she comes face to face with a community whose values are at odds with her fierce individualism and rebellious ways. Reunited, Nel and Sula must confront the consequences of their actions and the dreadful secret they shared in childhood.

Tar Baby (1981)

In the early Eighties, Morrison’s editor Gottlieb told her: “OK. You can write ‘writer’ on your tax returns”. Tar Baby was the novel that allowed Morrison – after years of multitasking to provide as a single mother – to give up the day job. Random House’s loss was also its gain, with Morrison going on to produce seven more novels and win immeasurable hard-won acclaim.

As for Tar Baby, the book is a story of star-crossed lovers Jadine (Black, but sponsored by an affluent white family into education and elite society) and Son (Black, who comes into servitude of the same family). Through their relationship, Morrison acutely addresses the innate racism of American society, exposing what is deemed to be acceptable and what is not.

Jazz (1992)

Seventy years after Harlem Renaissance, the music, energy and heat of northern Manhattan poured out of Jazz, the second novel in Morrison’s historical trilogy, which started with Beloved and completed with Paradise, published in 1997. Jazz isn’t just the title and lifeblood of the novel, but also inspires the syncopation of its prose, through which Morrison enables her different characters – a mentally unwell and green-eyed hairdresser named Violet, her murderous husband Joe, his lover Dorcas – to tell the story of a crime that rips through both the community and its history.   

God Help the Child (2015)

Morrison’s final novel, originally called The Wrath of Children, anticipated a conversation that would come to dominate Black fiction several years later – that of Colorism, alongside race, which plays a significant role in Brit Bennett’s best-selling novel, The Vanishing Half. Bride is the blue-black skinned daughter of two light-skinned parents, who reject her on account of their difference. Neatly, God Help the Child picks up on similar ideas to The Bluest Eye: race, acceptance and family relationships.

What did you think of this article? Let us know at editor@penguinrandomhouse.co.uk for a chance to appear in our reader’s letter page.

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