By Jennifer Reese
Updated November 05, 2008 at 05:00 AM EST

Toni Morrison’s short and forceful new novel, A Mercy, unfolds in a primeval 17th-century America, before the familiar, invidious social institutions have taken root. Here, in a richly evoked land of plenty, where a woman can scoop armfuls ? of salmon from a river, a high-minded farmer named Jacob Vaark briefly presides over a small, peaceable kingdom of multiethnic lost souls and orphans.

Everyone on the Vaark place is slightly wounded; no one has anywhere else to turn. Jacob’s wife, Rebekka, sailed from Europe in flight from its urban squalor. Her closest friend — and nominally her servant — is a Native American woman, Lina, who watched as her childhood village was ravaged by smallpox and burnt to the ground. (Able to intuit secrets and speak with squirrels, this sentimentalized oracular female is the sine qua non of a Toni Morrison novel.) There’s also a daft young foundling named Sorrow who washed up on the beach after a shipwreck. The least convincing character in the book, not to mention the least appealing, Sorrow has black teeth, converses primarily with an imaginary friend, and specializes in getting pregnant. As the novel begins, Vaark is about to add one more creature to this fragile and eccentric community. Although he finds slavery ”a degraded business,” he reluctantly accepts Florens, a slave girl, as payment on a debt from a smarmy planter after Florens’ mother drops to her knees and pleads with him to take the child.

As we know all too well from Morrison’s 1987 masterpiece Beloved, women can do terrible and inadvertent damage in the name of maternal love — or mercy. Here, once again, the desperate, well-intentioned gambit of a slave mother leads circuitously to a gory cataclysm, one of the many dark forces that will bring down farmer Vaark’s noble experiment. But while Morrison’s American creation myth has a woefully ?familiar ending, she has imagined for it a strangely beautiful and bittersweet beginning. B+