Review: Song of Solomon

“It’s a bad word, ‘belong.’ Especially when you put it with somebody you love … You can’t own a human being.”  ~ Toni Morrison, Song of Solomon

Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison
337 pages
Published by Plume, 1977
Genre: Fiction
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
Re-readability: Foreshadowing and endless layers of symbolism make this a book I’ll read over and over.

Reviewed by Pete
Spoiler-free review

Toni Morrison knows people. I imagine she’s the sort of person who can take a look at a stranger and figure out their greatest fears and desires in a minute. You could disassemble Song of Solomon into its separate character arcs and make a complete novel out of each one. They’re so diverse and passionate that speech tags aren’t necessary to tell who’s speaking.

So why does she choose to make Milkman Dead the center of the story? Because he thinks he’s the center of the world, and he’s kind of right. Everyone needs him, but he also owes everyone. And he has no idea how deep his debts run.

Song of Solomon, set in 1950s and 60s Michigan, is a deep character study with family secrets as its main plot. Milkman’s father is an ambitious and miserable landlord, and his mother is a shell of a person who has asked for little and received nothing.

The book can be divided into two parts, both distinct in plot and character development. Morrison pulls a trick that probably doesn’t work on all readers but worked on me: Milkman thinks himself a force of friendship and love at the start of the story, but quickly learns that he has been the epicenter of misery for his friends, lovers, and family. like Milkman, I was (mostly) unaware of the damage he was doing until it was spelled out for me. Then I felt like I must have been blind to not see it—his neglect and aloofness are all throughout every one of his relationships.

After this shift in character, Milkman seeks a lost family treasure, and in the process, begins unraveling the mysteries of the Dead family. Every time he thinks he’s gotten to the bottom of his origins and the issues that plague his family, there’s another secret that changes everything.

Song of Solomon is a book that will challenge your expectations again and again. Each chapter introduces a powerful reversal, and the story spirals in complexity before coming into focus in the denouement. I rate books 5 out of 5 stars sparingly (the most recent one was News of the World), but this novel is one of the most powerful and memorable I have ever read. Its spectrum of themes and characters make it a book I’d recommend to anyone.

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