Books: Something Terrible Happened BELOVED

by Toni Morrison; Knopf; 275 pages; $18.95

Writing a novel about slavery in the U.S. would seem to be a fail-safe endeavor. The audience for such a book is already converted: the evil of owning men, women and children as chattel is shamefully obvious to everyone, and the heroes and villains are easy to tell apart. But it is precisely the contemporary consensus on human bondage that makes serious fiction on this subject so rare and so difficult to achieve. Imaginative literature at its best does not reinforce received opinions but disturbs them, puts them to the test of experience relived. And what is obvious to readers now...