There is no action without consequence, no cause without effect. In bad fiction, those effects fall upon each other like poorly laid dominoes, resulting in tedious plotting. Better writers can make predictable results seem fresh through cleverness and sincerity, but great writers tell stories that refuse the easy answers of inevitability. The choices made by the characters in Toni Morrison's A Mercy, are often hardly choices at all, and the consequences are impossible to see to their ends, but by its final pages, Morrison's novel is as unexpected as it is richly rewarding.
Set in America in the late 17th century, Mercy follows the lives and miseries of a farmer named Jacob Vaark, his wife Rebekka, their servant Lina, a half-crazed young woman named Sorrow, and a girl named Florens, a slave's daughter with an affection for fancy shoes. Jacob takes Florens from her original master as payment for a debt; apart from Lina, he owns no slaves and has no interest in them, but the Florens' mother offers up her child for reasons beyond Jacob or Florens' understanding, and he can't help but accept. The decision changes her life, as Jacob soon becomes ill, and Rebekka is quickly infected. Only a local emancipated blacksmith offers any hope of salvation, and Florens, deeply infatuated with the man, is sent to find him.
Mercy alternates between Florens' first-person narrative and third-person chapters detailing the other characters' present and past. It's a short novel, almost a novella, but even in its brevity, Morrison creates a passionate, well-textured world. Tragedy looms behind every moment; given the time period and the predominately wilderness setting, it would be unrealistic otherwise. But there's also a tenuous thread of survival connecting each narrative, a feeling of progression that builds as the story moves to its conclusion. A Mercy is as haunted by the living as it is by the dead; it's full of people struggling to anchor themselves against the vagaries of circumstance. In the end, whether they succeed is open to interpretation.