I love to read and can get very attached to my opinions, but recently I've been learning not to completely lose my head when people disagree with me, so feel safe to argue with me whenever you wish ;)
I think I appreciate this a lot more than I love it. Even then, by the time I was 100 or 200 pages in, I wished I'd paid more attention in the beginning so I could have grasped the structure of the story better.
Shortly put, Beloved deals with the effects of traumatic memory on the present. The way institutional change does not mean immediate emotional change. We are, of course, talking about American slavery: eight years after the end of the Civil War in 1873, Sethe and her daughter Denver struggle to build their lives in freedom, even though Sethe is still haunted by her past and Denver's emotional development as a young adult is stunted because of it. The main, though definitely not the only, source of trauma: years ago when slave catchers came to retrieve Sethe and her children after they'd run away, Sethe attempted to kill them rather than allow them to return to slavery. She succeeded with her second-youngest baby, Beloved. This part of the plot has historical basis in the story of Margaret Garner.
I'm not sure what there is to say. It feels like the kind of book that set out to express the un-express-able. Maybe before this, I simply couldn't imagine what it must be like to have mind and body completely under someone else's control...and to still feel that way even after being given freedom. It reminds me of how modern abuse victims struggle with being trapped in the emotional lifestyle that they had to adopt in order to survive. The things normal people take for granted: a basic sense of self and physical safety, an education, a hope for the future, are made to feel completely unattainable. More tragically perhaps, the trauma is not limited to one generation: Denver is all but robbed of her childhood because her mother and the community that should have taken care of her have enough on their hands trying not to let their pasts take over them. And it's not really explicitly stated, but the subtext does prompt your imagination a little. How coldly impersonal an institution slavery is: nationwide, systematic, and taken down not because blacks themselves were able to mobilize as a group but because people already politically privileged enough were able to legislate its removal.
It's an ugly period of history to write about. After the Reconstruction, blacks had to wait almost another hundred years before their voting rights were given full protection. The concept of a single group of people prevented from reaching full self-determination for generation after generation is just mind-boggling, and the fact that it's so recent in national memory begs the question of race relations today. Luckily for us, Beloved does conclude with a happy ending.