Set high up in the Bottom, a result of a ‘joke’ played on a freed slave, Toni Morrison’s Sula is full of contradictions. You’d expect the novel to focus on Sula, the eponymous character, but it doesn’t – not really. She’s not really introduced until about the third ‘chapter’, and even then, her mention seems like something of an oversight.
As the novel develops, it slowly becomes clear why the novel is called Sula, and not Nel, her best friend and almost twin, or Eva, the matriarch in the story. Everything Sula does seems to set off some kind of chain reaction, even if she’s not fully aware of it herself. She leaves to go to college, to spend life outside the closeted community of the Bottom, and returns ten years later, accompanied by a swarm of robins. The community declares Sula and her air of independence evil, and in doing so, becomes more cohesive and caring towards one another. After her death, all of this falls apart, and eventually, the town is destroyed to make way for a golf course.
The characters of Sula and Nel are central to the novel, and Morrison plays out a special type of girlhood friendship between the two that extends beyond normal friendship but does not progress as far as romantic involvement. They’re so closely linked as children and young adults, both mentally and physically, that the events that occur when they eventually grow up and meet the big, bad world seem so jarring.
This slight of a novel reads like a dream, and this is mostly due to all the magical goings-on that are generally ignored or treated like they are normal occurrences. Unusual deaths occur, and they’re swept under the rug, almost like Morrison’s trying to get at something deeper than what you’d expect in a normal kind of plot.
It is interesting to read about a community that is so different and at the same time so similar to ours. Females rule over this community – there are hardly any men mentioned, and if they are, they play relatively minor roles. It is the females that dictate the rules and regulations that are the backbone of the community, but it so happens that they choose to decry the urge to be independent, for any other woman to try and make a life for herself that isn’t governed by a man.
Morrison’s Sula is a wonderful and short read that will leave you with more questions than answers. It is a unique insight into a different kind of community that has a twist on the values they impress on their members. Read it for this reason, or simply to escape the banality of normal life – Sula will charm, shock and delight in ways you will not think possible.