"Recitatif" by Toni Morrison

By Toni Morrison

Reviewed by Shari

ISBN 9780593315033

"Récitatif" is the French form of recitative, a style of musical declamation that hovers between song and ordinary speech, particularly used for dialogic and narrative interludes during operas and oratories.  An obsolete sense of the term was also "the tone or rhythm peculiar to any language."

Toni Morrison’s only short story was written in 1980 and anthologized in a number of collections. Recently (2022), Recitatif was published as a stand-alone book in hardcover with a well-thought-out introduction by Zadie Smith. The story is about two girls, Twyla and Roberta who find themselves for a short time, in an orphanage for children. They were there because their mothers were unable to care for them as one was sick and the other as Morrison puts it “just likes to dance all night”.  The story evolves into five brief encounters Twyla and Roberta have with each other as they grow into adulthood.
We know early on that one of these girls is black and one is white, but Morrison deliberately “removes all racial codes from the narrative about two characters of different races for whom racial identity is crucial.” Essentially, we never do truly know which girl is black and which girl is white. In Morrison’s experimental prose and with her extraordinary command of language, we are lead into deliberate ambiguity and are tempted to keep guessing. But guessing misses the point. A deeper reading exposes how language simultaneously reveals deep layers of prejudice and deep-rooted markers of racial identity.
Read this book, read it twice, consider Zadie Smith’s powerful introduction and let Morrison’s words deepen your understanding of her mind, her world, even the world at large.

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