Sula is about a part of a small town in the US in the interwar period. It’s not so much a story as a series of interconnected character illustrations that Morrison uses to illuminate some really big social issues.
Shadrack is a young man injured in the First World War. He comes back to Bottom shell-shocked and traumatised and there’s no care or support for him. Helen Wright is a straight-laced conservative woman who is contrasted with earthy, sexually free Hannah. Their daughters, Nel and Sula, become friends. They have an intense and deep friendship in the way that girls do. There is a shocking incident involving a small boy in the village that is witnessed by Shadrack. Nel and Sula grow up together. Nel marries a local boy; a man angry at the unjust situation that gives white immigrants jobs and leaves local black men out of work. Sula leaves for the big city on Nel’s wedding day.
Nel has three children and what is a relatively successful marriage for the time and place. Plenty of men leave the women on their own to raise the children. There’s no work, so there’s no pride. They turn to drink and sit outside the pool hall all day. But Nel’s husband stays. Ten years later, Sula returns. She disrupts the whole of Bottom, including Nel’s marriage. Sula lives for herself, she doesn’t sacrifice herself the way a woman is supposed to. She acts like a man and is punished for it.
Sula is beautifully written and the time period and place is brought vividly to life. Morrison touches on some very serious subjects in a very light way. In a few words, the essence of a person is captured. It’s a literary novel so there’s not much story or plot. It’s about bringing to life a particular time and place that could easily be forgotten. It’s also about how hard it is for a woman to self-actualise.
The final paragraph is the perfect end to the book and is heartbreaking. I really enjoyed the book.