FANTASY ISLAND: Much of Toni Morrison’s ‘Tar Baby’ is set on a fictional Caribbean island, but the action spirits us away to Paris, New York and the Deep South.

Photo: F. Martin Ramin/The Wall Street Journal

WITHIN THE FIRST few pages of Toni Morrison’s “Tar Baby,” a young black Floridian fugitive named Son jumps off the top deck of a cargo ship and into the warm waters of the Caribbean Sea—and off we go. Morrison’s fourth book, an unexpected, unforgettable love story, follows the roiling romance of Son and Jadine, a fashion model of “unhinging beauty.” Living between New York and Paris and educated at the Sorbonne, Jadine (or Jade) was raised by her aunt Ondine and uncle Sydney, a black couple from Baltimore and the longtime cook and butler, respectively, of a white entrepreneur, Valerian Street, and his wife, Margaret, a redhead with “blue-if-it’s-a-boy blue eyes.” Valerian buys an island in the Caribbean and builds a lavish home there. That’s where most of the novel takes place, an immoderately lush backdrop for the searing conflicts about race, class, abuse and loyalty that ignite as soon as Son arrives.

Published in 1981, “Tar Baby” received mixed reviews—in one, John Irving noted “the excesses of the book’s dialogue and lyricism,” but otherwise praised Morrison’s craftsmanship. The story itself, infused with folklore, mysticism, emotive trees and insects, offers more than a glimmer of the literary lightening bolts that lay ahead. (Morrison went on to receive the Pulitzer Prize in 1988 for “Beloved,” and the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993.) It’s also sublimely transporting, from a Parisian supermarket to the fictional island of Isle des Chevaliers—with “hills and vales so bountiful it made visitors tired to look at them”—to the electrifying streets of New York to Son’s tiny hometown in Florida.

But there’s another more pressing reason to read “Tar Baby” this summer. Penned almost four decades ago, the book’s strongest message—wrapped in a love note—is, to put it in today’s vernacular, that black lives matter. Even as the book’s white characters act like they don’t. Morrison traces, with poetic precision, the way racism distorts and tortures each black life, even that of a magnetic model on an island idyll.

DESIGN

Breezy verandas and an overboard greenhouse

Illustration: Matthew Cook

We’re constantly paying house calls in “Tar Baby”—and each home described highlights the vast differences among the characters. The Streets’ home (shown)—”the oldest and most impressive” on Isle des Chevaliers—was built by cheap Haitian laborers who “carved lovingly to perfection” the window sills and door saddles. “It was a wonderful house. Wide, breezy and full of light,” writes Morrison. Valerian even goes “rather overboard” and builds a greenhouse where he can grow the hydrangeas he misses from Philadelphia. Tellingly, Sydney and Ondine, after working for the Streets for decades, have no home of their own. Instead, they sleep in an apartment above the downstairs kitchen.

FASHION

A fur coat in the tropics

Illustration: Matthew Cook

”Tar Baby” is set in the late 1970s, a few years after Beverly Johnson became the first African-American model to appear on the cover of Vogue and then French Elle. Borrowing a page from a fashion-world first, Morrison gives Jadine the same honor. She throws a dinner party in Paris to celebrate being chosen for the cover of French Elle. On another magazine cover, we learn, Jadine is swathed in silver lame, another sure sign of the times.

Morrison name-drops several fashion labels throughout the book, most of them affixed to items in the Streets’ wardrobe. There are Anne Klein shoes, Bally shoes, Paco Rabanne cologne and a Hickey Freeman jacket (which suits the handsome Son particularly well). The object that garners the most affection is Jadine’s sealskin coat (shown), a gift shipped to the island from one of her white French suitors. The coat is conveyed as simultaneously repulsive and wildly luxurious. “She went to the bed where the skins of ninety baby seals sprawled. She lay on top of them and ran her fingertips through the fur. How black. How shiny.”

TECHNOLOGY

That old clicking noise

Illustration: Matthew Cook

Feeling displaced and adrift in Son’s hometown of Eloe, Jadine remembers her camera (shown). She does what would be unthinkable to today’s Instagram models or runway stars; she turns the lens away from herself. Squatting in the road, Jadine trains the camera on the people of Eloe perhaps hoping to catch a glimpse of her own heritage in their faces. She snaps away and directs the children and young women in posing. “Only the old folks refused to smile and glared into her camera as though looking at hell with the lid off. The men were enjoying the crease in her behind so clearly defined in the sunlight, click, click.”

Back in New York, once the film has been developed—remember those days?—Jadine leaves the prints in an envelope for Son. “Gazing at the photos one by one, trying to find in them what it was that used to comfort him so.”

FOOD

Mango, pineapple and Olliebollen

Illustration: Matthew Cook

How hungry can we be for love, for affection? Food is what stops Valerian and his deceptively beautiful wife from eating each other alive. Instead, they devour mangoes (shown), pineapple, grapefruit and call a truce over Oliebollen, the Dutch fried doughnuts of Valerian’s youth.

Inflamed conversations! Revelatory interlocutions that rival Taylor-Burton in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” Ostensibly, they’re about food, but delicious battles usually ensue. One morning at breakfast, Valerian, Ondine and Sydney go at it, pressuring Margaret to eat the pineapple she is served and doesn’t want. Outnumbered, she manages to get her way and be served a mango instead. “Her little victory with the mango strengthened her enough to concentrate on what her husband was saying.”

LOCALES

From azure waters to Midtown Manhattan

Illustration: Matthew Cook

Isle des Chevaliers (shown) is a stand-in for any one of the verdant, hilly Xanadus dotting the Caribbean. In Morrison’s telling, it’s also the site of a mythic battle between nature and civilization, where trees have “nightmare mutterings” and rivers are “brokenhearted.” When Jadine returns to New York to meet up with Son, she giggles with relief. “The smart thin trees on Fifty-Third Street refreshed her. They were to scale, human-sized and the buildings did not threaten her like the hills of the island had.” But New York doesn’t prove to be a safe harbor after all, forcing Jade and Son to confront their sharply divergent feelings about race and what it means to be black.

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