Sula is really the story of two women, Nel and Sula, who have been best friends since childhood. Their closeness is unique really, but that could be due to the amount they’ve experienced together – dysfunctional families, numerous tragedies (and very sticky ends), and the accidental death of a young boy for which they’re secretly responsible. They were raised in a black community, but while Nel stays to get married, Sula leaves the town and doesn’t return for ten years. When she finally comes back, the entire town is distrustful of her because she has spent too much time mixing with white people, dressing like white women, and sleeping with white men. They blame her for everything that goes wrong in the town and unite against her. Even Nel is (understandably) turned against her when she catches Sula having sex with her husband, however she visits Sula on her deathbed and chooses to forgive her.
To be honest, I wasn’t quite sure what to make of this book. The writing was very flowing and lyrical, and was intentionally written with a rhythm in mind. I’ve heard an interview with Toni Morrison where she said she doesn’t allow anyone else to record audiobooks of her novels because nobody else can read it with the proper rhythms and flows like she can, which leads me to suspect that I also didn’t read it in quite the manner it was intended. Still, I did quite enjoy the writing style (although I’m not sure how well I’d get on with it if the book was much longer). It did occasionally seem at odds though, as the writing was so poetic and lyrical but some of the events it described were really very brutal.
There is quite a lot of grimness in Sula. There are a lot of violent deaths, and a lot of cruelty. I found it a bit hard to keep track of their family histories and I didn’t think any of the characters were particularly likeable, but I especially didn’t like Sula herself. She was so arrogant and full of herself, and I was so frustrated when she managed to drive away Nel, the only person who really cared about her. I couldn’t quite understand why she had sex with Jude in the first place. Maybe it was because she and Nel had shared everything else in life, and Sula thought Nel’s husband was for the taking too. Maybe she knew (as we did) that he was a no-good piece of work who didn’t deserve Nel, and she was just trying to prove that to her. Or maybe she just didn’t care. It did lead to the saddest moment of the book though, as when Nel discovers Sula is dying she suddenly realises that the whole time she thought she was missing Jude, she was actually pining for Sula. After all she’d done and the way she’d been treated by Sula, Nel still valued her friendship more than she valued her own marriage, and that was quite touching.
I don’t know that I actually enjoyed reading Sula as such. I thought it was effective and the story was well told, but I didn’t particularly like the story itself. I didn’t warm to any of the characters, and the book was peppered with spite and lots of gruesome stories about people being deliberately burned alive and the like, and I just didn’t really get on with it. I sometimes found it a bit hard to be sure exactly what had happened and to who because it’s so easy to get swept along by the writing, so I would occasionally have to go back and reread passages to be clear what was going on. Despite this, I’m sure there were still some aspects where I didn’t quite understand what was happening or why. It was interesting though, and I’ll definitely read more by Toni Morrison in the future to see if I have a better reading experience or if her writing is perhaps not for me. I do think the story in Sula was good, it was just a bit too harsh for me to take pleasure in reading the book.