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Book Review: Tar Baby (1981)

"...underneath her efficiency and know-it-all sass were wind chimes. Nine rectangles of crystal, rainbowed in the light. Fragile pieces of glass tinkling as long as the breeze was gentle. But in more vigorous weather the thread that held it together would snap. So it would be his duty to keep the climate mild for her, to hold back with his hands if need be the thunder, drought, and all manner of winterkill, and he would blow with his own lips a gentle enough breeze for her to tinkle in."


Tar Baby is so rich in imagery and symbolism and anthropomorphism and thematic characterization and epic run-on sentences as to be the literary equivalent of a Swedish butter pastry, the kind that makes your arteries go "clang!" as soon as you lay eyes on it, but is so good for your soul that you gobble it up anyway and beg for more.

The novel revolves around the Street household, self-exiled to the Caribbean: Valerian Street, the aging and still imperious candy magnate; his beautiful wife Margaret, once a child bride; the butler Sydney and his wife, the cook Ondine; and finally, Sydney and Ondine's niece, Jadine, recently fled from a modeling career in Paris after a scene best described as a waking dream dredged from the soul of ancient ancestral shame. It's shaping up to be another non-fun Christmas at home, and the appearance of a stranger, filthy and starving, with dreadlocks that go past the Bob Marley horizon, throws everyone off. By the time Son appears, members of the Street household are already well developed and sympathetic. By the time he's gone, we learn about secrets and sins and innocence.

Toni Morrison is a queen of description, and here she applies equal dramatic feeling to trees and ants as to humans. Branches wrap protectively around fruit; monarch butterflies flit past Jadine's window, hoping to catch a glimpse of her rumored beauty. Morrison's skill at engaging dialogue is also alive in Tar Baby, especially in the beginning of the book, as Valerian and Sydney banter easily, with the familiarity of two people who've known each other for decades, but always with the awareness of their respective social standings. Margaret, as the unstable character, adds an unsteady beat to the conversational rhythm. And Jadine, a blindingly obvious representation of the educated and cultured African-American, levels everything out with her reason and self-control.

The themes in the book run rampant: the relationship between master and servant, and black and white; tensions within the black community; the insularity of island blacks; education against memory; the true meaning of debt; the value of beauty; the wilderness inside; power and helplessness; and so on. The narrative is composed of parallels, juxtaposing the competing myths in the minds of the characters. The main question of the book might be, who/what is the tar baby, i.e. who/what is the trap set out to lure the rabbit, the trap that sucks you in when you touch it? Is it Jade, with her tight restraint, sharp mind, and industrious planning? Is it Margaret, whose extraordinary beauty kept everyone away? Also, who is the rabbit? Is it Son, with his refusal to let go of his tiny hometown in the country? Is it Valerian, finally knocked from his perch by the secret everyone has kept from him?

The unexpected ending, courtesy of an old blind woman, suggests another answer: the tar baby is the walking legend made out of your own true desire. It will have you no matter how you struggle, or what path you take. Just like this book, hey?

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