The cover of Toni Morrison's new novel cannot stress enough that it is "set, like Beloved, in the American past." And you can see why: Morrison's books since the triumph of Beloved, and the ensuing Nobel Prize, have been curiously uninspiring. A Mercy is, as advertised, set in the American past, though much further into it than Beloved: it takes place in the 1680s. It is the story of Florens, a slave girl who is taken from her mother and sold to a sympathetic farmer named Jacob. In many ways A Mercy follows the template of Beloved it's about who a daughter who is lost to her mother. But the book's tone is very different. Beloved was a novel of coruscating anger. A Mercy is the work of a mellower Morrison, maybe even a more hopeful one. The 17th century was tainted by slavery, but it was also a freer, more open-minded age, before race had become the toxic, blinding obsession that it is today.