“They shoot the white girl first. With the rest they can take their time.” So begins Toni Morrison’s Paradise, which opens with a horrifying scene of mass violence and chronicles its genesis in an all-black small town in rural Oklahoma. Founded by the descendants of freed slaves and survivors in exodus from a hostile world, the patriarchal community of Ruby is built on righteousness, rigidly enforced moral law, and fear. But seventeen miles away, another group of exiles has gathered in a promised land of their own. And it is upon these women in flight from death and despair that nine male citizens of Ruby will lay their pain, their terror, and their murderous rage.
In prose that soars with the rhythms, grandeur, and tragic arc of an epic poem, Toni Morrison challenges our most fiercely held beliefs as she weaves folklore and history, memory and myth into an unforgettable meditation on race, religion, gender, and a far-off past that is ever present.
Paradise actually begins with the arrival of these vigilantes, only to launch into an intricate series of flashbacks and interlaced stories. The cast is large--indeed, it seems as though we must have met all 360 members of Ruby's populace--and Morrison knows how to imprint even the minor players on our brains. Even more amazing, though, are the full-length portraits she draws of the four Convent dwellers and their executioners: rich, rounded, and almost painful in their intimacy. This richness--of language and, ultimately, of human understanding--combats the aura of saintliness that can occasionally mar Morrison's fiction. It also makes for a spectacular piece of storytelling, in which such biblical concepts as redemption and divine love are no postmodern playthings but matters of life and (in the very first sentence, alas) death.