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“You can feel the workings of history through her prose”: Hilary Mantel on Toni Morrison

Compared to so many white male novelists with their vapid posturing, Toni Morrison has lost none of her power.

Toni Morrison has said in interviews that readers sometimes ask her: "Why don't you write about white people?" You could come off your ground and on to ours, they suggest; because you are an artist you "transcend" divisions. They mean to flatter her; yet what they mean is both insulting and absurd. No group has a bigger share in the power of narrative than any other. All Morrison's work exists to remind us of this. The cultural default position is still "white, male", but Morrison has shown through her distinguished career that there are other eyes to look through and other mouths through which to speak, and that these visions and discourses are in no way "alternative"; if you are black, and a woman, they are simple, central and natural.

Her new book interweaves the stories of a group of black women, some old and some young, some living and some dead. Their common focus is the long-deceased Bill Cosey, one-time owner of Cosey's Resort, a coastal hotel that had its heyday around 1942. It was a pleasure-ground for the black professional classes, a place to dine and dance and sleep in fine linen sheets, to laugh, relax, gamble and forget the insults of a segregated society. Morrison evokes magnificently the rustle of chiffon skirts, the trailing scent of jasmine on ocean breezes, a sky (before light pollution) swathed in stars. It is Eden, almost; one day into the pleasure garden worms a skinny little girl called Heed The Night, offspring of a feckless, violent family - you would say she was from the wrong side of the tracks, except there are no tracks where Heed's people live.

Sometimes, Morrison suggests, two children move towards each other with an emotion like love at first sight; it creates a bond that only the most extreme circumstances can undo. Cosey has a grand-daughter, Christine, and she and Heed become closer than sisters, close as if they lived in one skin. But Bill is a widower, and one day he notices Heed running through his hotel; he touches the nipple of her ungrown breast. A short while later they are married. Heed is 11 years old. Her prospects are transformed, her family paid off. Christine's security is shattered. Jealousy and uncomprehending rage make her dangerous. She is sent away from home. Disaster engulfs her. Love turns to a lifelong enmity. When the book begins, Heed and Christine are old women, still squabbling over Cosey's will, which he scribbled on a menu while half-drunk. They are really squabbling over which one Cosey loved the most.

Was Cosey worth it? The male characters are only lightly sketched. It is women who have a call on our attention. A girl called Junior turns up at the house the old women share. Heed has advertised for help. She wants to write her life story, she says. Really, she wants to talk about the past, and to pursue her quarrel with Christine in sneaky new ways. Can Junior help her? Junior says she can do anything. She has just got out of custody, originates in the same badlands as Heed herself. Sexy, blunt, predatory in her cheap, creaking leather jacket, she brings a whiff of the bus station and the street into the house where the old ladies live among heavy furnishings, each isolated in her own pool of lamplight. Her brashness scatters the ghosts, women who exist less as presences than echoes. There is May, Christine's mother, who was a preacher's daughter, and the mysterious L, whose name is never made known to us: perhaps it is Love? Then there is Bill Cosey's true love, the "sporting woman" Celestial, with her scarred face and unknowable past. It is hard work to disentangle these women's parts in the narrative, or free their voices from each other. Perhaps that is the point; their stories have grown together. Some are foregrounded - Junior is a pungent presence on the page - but others, especially Celestial, have a less differentiated and more archaic quality. When Cosey's ghost starts to manifest to Junior, it seems that Morrison has reached lazily into a box named "proven effects". Morrison seems to be shrugging and saying to the reader: You do the work - after all, you've read this book before.

In a sense we have. As time passes, it seems that Morrison's 1987 masterpiece, Beloved, contains all her other books, and unwritten books as well. Having read this story of a woman who kills her child rather than condemn her to slavery, you will be wiser and much sadder, more experienced, too, as if you had learnt to read for the second time. Love offers more muted effects. But the power of Morrison's language is intact, and its strengths are in the atmosphere she builds, of the coast and the country behind it: the massing black clouds rushing onshore, which the local people call Police-heads, because they "like to troll at night". Police-heads open their wide maws and swallow lives and hopes; behind the narrative is a society engulfed by protest and riven not just by racial but by economic divisions. While the cities are burning, Cosey's Resort slides a little towards the sand and the waves; the passionate women age; the creativity that fuels hatred as well as love begins to flag.

When Morrison writes at her best, you can feel the workings of history through her prose. Beneath the surface the social order creaks and shudders, as if the seas were rising and the rocks were beginning to shift. In the rinsing sorrow of her narratives and their powerful pull on our hearts, she is a tragic artist; ferocious rather than ironic, she takes language seriously and makes it work for her.

It is interesting to compare this book with a sample of what the white males are writing now. You note their wounded death's-head grins, their techno-posturing and street-smarts, their pallid vapidity. Style has dissipated into mannerism, muscularity degenerated to twitches and tics; the power has gone elsewhere. With a Pulitzer, a National Book Foundation medal and the Nobel Prize in the bag, Morrison may feel she can afford to stretch and relax a little while the sands shift, her themes regroup and her words remember themselves.

Love Toni Morrison Chatto & Windus, 202pp, £16.99 ISBN 0701175109.

Hilary Mantel's most recent book is Giving Up the Ghost (Fourth Estate)

This article first appeared in the 08 December 2003 issue of the New Statesman, Way out