Toni Morrison’s books won her a Pulitzer Prize, a Nobel Prize and international acclaim – all with very good reason. Here, we round up the world-shifting novels that everyone should have on their bookshelves.
But it has also sparked a surge of appreciation for what she gave us; her sparkling legacy of vivid, important writing on the black experience. It has prompted us to thumb through those well-worn pages and revisit the stories that taught us so much about the world and about ourselves.
Working as a book editor and raising two young sons alone at the age of 39, Morrison woke up at 4am every morning to write what would eventually become her first novel, The Bluest Eye. The urgency and importance of its message runs like a thread through its 10 successors, each as beautifully poetic as the last.
So whether you proudly display Morrison’s back catalogue on your bookshelf or have yet to discover her magic, delve into our pick of her most seminal novels – each one demands to be read again and again.
The Bluest Eye (1970)
Morrison’s first novel is an unflinching examination of the damage internalised racism and colourism can have on the psyche of a child. The harrowing story of its 11-year-old heroine – the perpetually mistreated Pecola Breedlove, who longs for the fair skin, blonde hair and blue eyes of those society considers beautiful – contrasts sharply with the novel’s dreamy, poetic prose. It remains essential reading, nearly 50 years on.
Host to Morrison’s most brilliant character work, this novel follows best friends Sula and Nel as their lives begin to diverge after childhood. One heads to college in the city while the other stays in their hometown to raise a family. Sula evokes an entire community so vividly, but also hones in on the realities of female friendship and black womanhood.
Song Of Solomon (1977)
A break from her usual focus on the experiences of black women, Morrison uses Song Of Solomon to tell the story of a Michigan man named Macon Dead III. Merging reality and fantasy, it charts his journey of self-discovery as he connects with his ancestors and learns to “fly”, highlighting the power of understanding our personal and collective histories.
Tar Baby (1981)
Tar Baby is about the relationship between two people from very different worlds, set against the backdrop of the Caribbean, Manhattan and the Deep South. A visceral and beautiful love story that examines racial and class-based prejudice within the black community, it stays with you long after you’ve put it down.
Often regarded as her masterwork, Beloved won Morrison the Pulitzer Prize and international acclaim. It follows Sethe, an enslaved mother who escapes from a Kentucky plantation only to be tracked down by slave-catchers a month later. Determined to protect her child from the degradation of returning to bondage, she is forced to commit a violent act of desperation that defines the rest of her life.
Set in 1920s Harlem, this episodic treasure focuses on a love triangle that ends in tragedy. The prose mimics the title, with free-flowing, unstructured sections and lots of characters’ perspectives coming together to form a whole. In true Morrison style, it’s delightfully unconventional.
Home follows Frank Money, a 24-year-old veteran of the Korean War haunted by trauma, as he travels back to his hometown in Georgia. Moving and unsettling, the novel draws parallels drawn between the violence of war and the vicious racism of the Jim Crow South – both looming, malevolent forces that shape Frank’s sense of self.
God Help The Child (2015)
Morrison’s final novel is the only one she chose to set in the present day – yet it deals with the same themes of generational trauma and colourism seen in her first novel.
Focusing on a warped mother-daughter relationship between a light-skinned woman and her dark-skinned baby, God Help The Child rounds off an incredible body of work with a stark warning: we may have come far, but we have so much farther to go. And we need to uplift the next generation if we’re ever going to get there.