Death of Nobel laureate Toni Morrison: 5 of her must-read novels

In this photo taken on Nov 5, 2010, Nobel-winning US novelist Toni Morrison (centre) attends the unveiling ceremony of a memorial bench marking the abolition of slavery in Paris.
In this photo taken on Nov 5, 2010, Nobel-winning US novelist Toni Morrison (centre) attends the unveiling ceremony of a memorial bench marking the abolition of slavery in Paris.PHOTO: AFP

"Make up a story," said the late African-American writer Toni Morrison in her Nobel acceptance speech. "Narrative is radical, creating us at the very moment it is being created... We know you can never do it properly - once and for all. Passion is never enough; neither is skill. But try."

Morrison died aged 88 on Monday (Aug 5). Here are five of her seminal novels from across five decades of writing about race, identity and trauma in America.

1. THE BLUEST EYE (1970)

Morrison wrote her controversial debut novel while holding a job in publishing and raising two children, waking up at 4am every day to write.

Set in her hometown of Lorain, Ohio, it is narrated in part by nine-year-old Claudia MacTeer, whose family takes in a foster child, Pecola Breedlove, 11, who has been violently abused by her father.

Pecola, who is black, believes herself ugly and longs for "blue eyes", which she has been conditioned by her community to think of as the paragon of beauty - a form of internalised racism that will destroy her.

2. SONG OF SOLOMON (1977)

The novel that propelled its author to fame and the winner of a National Book Critics Circle Award, Song Of Solomon follows the adventures of Macon "Milkman" Dead III, a rare male protagonist for Morrison and one of her most compelling.

 
 
 

Milkman is born as an insurance agent attempts to take flight off a rooftop and ends the novel with a kind of flight of his own.

In between, he searches for missing gold, loves and spurns his cousin and goes on a quest to find out about his ancestry.

3. BELOVED (1987)

Widely considered to be Morrison's masterpiece, Beloved is set in the wake of the American Civil War and built around a horrific act based on a real-life tragedy.

Sethe, a young mother who escapes slavery with her four children, is hunted down by her former owners. Rather than let her children be enslaved, she tries to kill them and succeeds in cutting the throat of her baby daughter, who years later continues to haunt her.

It won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction and was made into a film co-produced by and starring Oprah Winfrey, released in 1998.

4. JAZZ (1992)

In 1920s Harlem, cosmetics salesman Joe Trace shoots his teenage lover Dorcas in a fit of passion. At the funeral, his wife Violet takes a knife to the dead girl's face.

The narrative has a musical structure that riffs on the jazz of the novel's title, freewheeling across time and back to the 19th century.

5. GOD HELP THE CHILD (2015)

In the last novel Morrison published before her death, a light-skinned woman is disgusted when she gives birth to a daughter with blue-black skin.

This daughter, Bride, transforms herself into a successful cosmetics executive but is forever scarred by her mother's cruelty. When abandoned by her boyfriend Booker, she falls apart and takes to the road to track him down.