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A Mercy [Hardcover]

Toni Morrison
2.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)

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Book Description

Nov. 1 2009
A powerful tragedy distilled into a jewel of a masterpiece by the Nobel Prize–winning author of Beloved and, almost like a prelude to that story, set two centuries earlier.

In the 1680s the slave trade was still in its infancy. In the Americas, virulent religious and class divisions, prejudice and oppression were rife, providing the fertile soil in which slavery and race hatred were planted and took root.

Jacob is an Anglo-Dutch trader and adventurer, with a small holding in the harsh north. Despite his distaste for dealing in “flesh,” he takes a small slave girl in part payment for a bad debt from a plantation owner in Catholic Maryland. This is Florens, “with the hands of a slave and the feet of a Portuguese lady.” Florens looks for love, first from Lina, an older servant woman at her new master’s house, but later from a handsome blacksmith, an African, never enslaved.

There are other voices: Lina, whose tribe was decimated by smallpox; their mistress, Rebekka, herself a victim of religious intolerance back in England; Sorrow, a strange girl who’s spent her early years at sea; and finally the devastating voice of Florens’ mother. These are all men and women inventing themselves in the wilderness.

A Mercy reveals what lies beneath the surface of slavery. But at its heart it is the ambivalent, disturbing story of a mother who casts off her daughter in order to save her, and of a daughter who may never exorcise that abandonment.

Acts of mercy may have unforeseen consequences.

From the Hardcover edition.
--This text refers to the Paperback edition.

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“A horrifying act stood at the center of Toni Morrison’s 1987 masterwork, Beloved: a runaway slave, caught in her effort to escape, cuts the throat of her baby daughter with a handsaw, determined to spare the girl the fate she herself has suffered as a slave. A similarly indelible act stands at the center of Ms. Morrison’s remarkable new novella, A Mercy, a small, plangent gem of a story that is, at once, a kind of prelude to Beloved and a variation on that earlier book’s exploration of the personal costs of slavery–a system that moves men and women and children around ‘like checkers’ and casts a looming shadow over both parental and romantic love.

Set some 200 years before Beloved, A Mercy conjures up the beautiful, untamed, lawless world that was America in the 17th century with the same sort of lyrical, verdant prose that distinguished that earlier novel. . . . Ms. Morrison has rediscovered an urgent, poetic voice that enables her to move back and forth with immediacy and ease between the worlds of history and myth, between ordinary daily life and the realm of fable. . . . A heartbreaking account of lost innocence and fractured dreams, [that] also stands, with Beloved, as one of Ms. Morrison’s most haunting works yet.”
–Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times

“Spellbinding . . . Dazzling . . . [A Mercy] stands alongside Beloved as a unique triumph in Morrison’s body of work. The lush poetry and amorphous structure of [the novel] reflect the story’s distant setting in the mist of America’s creation, when independence and the three-fifths compromise of the Constitution were still a century away. . . . Morrison, who has written so powerfully of catastrophe, cruelty and horror, here adds to that song of tragedy equally thrilling chords of desire and wonder, which in their own way are no less tragic. Where Beloved ends with the cathartic exhaustion of an exorcism, A Mercy concludes with an ambiguous kind of prayer, redolent with possibility and yearning but inspired by despair. This rich little masterpiece is a welding of poetry and history and psychological acuity that you must not miss.”
–Ron Charles, The Washington Post Book World

“Luminous and complex . . . In Beloved, Morrison told the story of Sethe, a woman who murdered her own child rather than see her sold into slavery. Early on in A Mercy, we watch a mother do the opposite–she puts her daughter Florens up for sale . . . It’s a less bloody moment, but in its way it’s no less chilling. A Mercy is that daughter’s tale. . . . Morrison is mooting the perversely hopeful possibility that slavery could have existed without racism or at least without racism as we know it. She lavishes some of her best writing in years on [A Mercy’s] pre-Revolutionary world . . . A Mercy shows us America in the moment before race madness ruined it–it is a wounded land, but the wound has not yet turned septic. . . . In A Mercy, Morrison is urging her younger self, the tortured soul who fashioned the infernal vision that is Beloved, to look even further–beyond the veil of pain and anger, however righteous, to hope. There was a time before the present misery, Morrison seems to be telling herself. And therefore, maybe, there will be a time after it.”
–Lev Grossman, Time

“Magnificent . . . As with all Morrison’s finest work, A Mercy compellingly combines immediacy and obliquity. Its evocation of pioneer existence in America surrounds you with sensuous intensity. . . . An attack by a bear is described with thrilling power. . . . Idioms have potent directness, too. . . . Rich knowledgeability about 17th-century America is put to telling effect. Voices speak to you as if you were there. . . . The book keeps you vividly aware of the vital human individuality that racism’s crude categorizations are brutally trying to iron out. . . . A stark story of the evils of possessiveness and the perils of dispossession emerges slantwise. Hints, suspicions, secrets, ambivalences, scarcely acknowledged motives and barely noticeable nuances serve as signposts to enormities and desperations: around slavery’s large-scale uprootings, Morrison spotlights individual instances of loss (orphans and outcasts are, as often in her fiction, much in evidence; compensatory alliances they form are warmly portrayed). A Mercy is so enthralling that you’ll want to read it more than once. On each occasion, it further reveals itself as a masterpiece of rewarding complexity.”
–Peter Kemp, The Sunday Times (London)

“In [A Mercy,] a mother chooses to give her daughter to a stranger, the man who will ‘own’ her, in hopes that she’ll find a better life. It is this act from which the book derives its title, but it is, of course, an ambivalent gesture whose tragic resonance will be slowly unveiled. . . . Morrison here is seeking some deeper truth about what she once called ‘the presence of the unfree within the heart of the democratic experiment.’ Some regard this novel as a kind of prelude to Beloved, but the author has even more provocative ideas at play. . . . In writing about the horror of slavery, she finds a kind of ragged hope.”
–Renée Graham, Boston Sunday Globe

“[A Mercy] examines slavery through the prism of power, not race. Morrison achieves this by setting A Mercy in 1680s America, when slavery was a color-blind, equal-opportunity state of misery, not yet the rigid, peculiar institution it would become. . . . Morrison doesn’t write traditional novels so much as create a hypnotic state of poetic intoxication. You don’t read A Mercy, you fall into a miasma of language and symbolism. [It] offers an original vision of America in its primeval state, where freedom was a rare commodity.”
–Deirdre Donahue, USA Today

“[Toni Morrison] bound[s] into literature with her new book as if it were the first time, with the spry energy of a doe. A Mercy . . . is that beguiling and beautiful, that deftly condensed, that sinewy with imaginative sentences, lyric flight and abundant human sensitivity. . . . Finely hammered phrases repeatedly come off the anvil, forming a story as powerful as the many she has shaped before. Elements of this writer’s art from way back remain part of her achievement here. Like a mighty telescope perched on a contemporary plateau, Morrison draws in signals, moods, torments, exhilarations from African American life and history . . . Morrison mixes the verbal music of an era with idiosyncratic wisdom, delivered indirectly rather than ex cathedra, recalling omniscient Russian masters without imitating them. . . . Along the way come moments whose artistry freezes one’s page-turning. Morrison’s tactile reports rivet . . . What’s the opposite of ‘lazy’ in a fiction writer’s style and research? Industrious? Indefatigable? Morrison wears her knowledge lightly, yet every page exhibits her control of [the 17th century’s] objects and artifacts, its worries and dangers. She surrounds A Mercy’s more fanciful arabesques with a broad border of realism. . . . A book as masterfully wrought as A Mercy behooves its author to swagger. Go to it, Ms. Morrison.”
–Carlin Romano, The Philadelphia Inquirer

“A grand tragedy writ in miniature . . . Women, men, Africans, Native Americans, whites, masters, slaves–all are cast into the hard world that is the New World in Toni Morrison’s lustrous new novel. In the same way, the Nobel Prize winner casts us into her hypnotic, many-voiced narrative set in the 17th century in a nation yet unformed. . . . We’re beguiled from the opening sentence: ‘Don’t be afraid.’ The speaker is Florens, black, barely out of childhood, a slave but literate, whose eager-to-please ways and lyrical language endear her to us and to the Virginia household of Jacob Vaark. . . . The subject of [A Mercy] is slavery, and [Morrison] brings to it, along with some of her most haunting language, elements of history and mythos. . . . A Mercy is kindled by characters who are complex and vulnerable, full of what she describes in Beloved as ‘awful human power.’ . . . This novel’s release coincides with the presidential election of Barack Obama, a shining moment in our country’s history of which Morrison’s characters can barely dream.”
–Ellen Kanner, The Miami Herald

“Themes of slavery and grief, of women’s struggles to escape the bitterness of the captive world, are at the center of Morrison’s work. They also lie at the heart of her new novel, A Mercy, which looks to history [as in Beloved]–in this case, the 1680s and 1690s–to explore the agonies of slavery among the settlers of the New World. Such a description makes Morrison’s novel sound far too pat, however; it slights the poetry and breadth of her work. Yes, A Mercy is about slavery, but in the most universal sense, meaning the limits we place on ourselves as well as the confinements we suffer at the hands of others. . . . [It is] a work of poetry and intelligence, and a continuation of what John Updike has called [Morrison’s] ‘noble and necessary fictional project of exposing the infamies of slavery and the hardships of being African American.’ The story assumes even greater metaphorical power at this particular moment, with the election of Barack Obama as our first African American president.”
–Judith Freeman, Los Angeles Times Book Review

“[Morrison is] a conscious inheritor of America’s pastoral traditi... --This text refers to the Paperback edition.

About the Author

Toni Morrison is the Robert F. Goheen Professor of Humanities, Emerita, at Princeton University. She has received the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Pulitzer Prize. In 1993 she was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. She lives in Rockland County, New York, and Princeton, New Jersey. --This text refers to the Paperback edition.

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Customer Reviews

2.2 out of 5 stars
2.2 out of 5 stars
Most helpful customer reviews
19 of 21 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Evocative, gripping, beautiful Nov. 21 2008
By Luanne Ollivier #1 HALL OF FAME TOP 10 REVIEWER
Newly released, A Mercy takes place in the 1680's - the early days of the slave trade in the Americas.

Jacob is a trader who takes a small slave girl- Florens - in partial payment for a debt. The mother of the child begs him to take the girl, not herself. It is this act that has consequences for all the lives that are intertwined with that of Florens'. Florens joins Jacob's wife Rebekka, Lina, a servant and Sorrow, an indentured young woman, at their hardscrabble farm. Scully and Willard are also hoping to buy their freedom. Florens yearns for the blacksmith, an African who has never been enslaved.

Life at this time in history is defined and described from the viewpoint of each of these characters. Each character is enslaved to something in this new world - an owner, religion, wealth, desire and memory. The most poignant voice is that of Floren's mother. The last chapter of the book belongs to her and it ends on a powerful note.

Toni Morrison has a gift with words. Although it is tempting to read straight through to the end, I always take the time to savour and enjoy the language she uses.

..."especially here where tobacco and slaves were married, each currency clutching it's partner's elbow".

Toni Morrison is an amazingly gifted writer, having won both a Nobel and Pulitzer Prize. If you haven't experienced her yet, I encourage you to pick up any of her books.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Morrison Fan, Not Much Impressed July 26 2009
By Nicola Mansfield HALL OF FAME TOP 50 REVIEWER
Reason for Reading: I am in the process of reading all the author's books. This is her latest as of July 2009.

Comments: The time is 1680, the place is colonial America. This is the story of four women: Rebekka, an English girl sent to America as a wife whose family paid a monetary dowry; Florens, a black slave child (later woman) who is traded in exchange for partial payment of a debt; Sorrow, a European (Irish I find myself thinking for some reason) foundling coming to womanhood who is given as a gift to protect her from the growing boys in her current household; finally Lina, another child (later) woman who remembers vividly some small parts of her Native American life before she is sold and paid for. All these women belong to a man who doesn't believe in slavery, who despises those who does. He is a fairly decent, kind man but ultimately wants to have the riches of those he despises. But most of all, as the jacket flap states: "A Mercy reveals what lies beneath the surface of slavery. But at its heart it is the ambivalent, disturbing story of a mother who casts off her daughter in order to save her ..."

The story is told in many voices: all the woman have their turn (some many times), the man behind the women and the farm hands. The story is told in a progressive forward movement but also slips into flashback scenes to give backgrounds to the characters. In such a short book, this becomes quite confusing at times. I spent a large majority of the time not knowing who was speaking until halfway through their narrative. Generally, I enjoy switching points of view and flashbacks but the book was just too short for me to get a grasp on anything really substantial.
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0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars not worth it June 23 2009
I am having a hard time , even reading past the first few pages of this book . I cant figure out who is talking , what they are talking about , and to who,
The writing seems unessesarily complicated. PLUS the book cost $18

could have saved a few dollars on this one
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0 of 3 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars not impressed! Oct. 12 2010
I am reading a series of books for a university course and I was not impressed with the seller of this item! It came to me PAST the last expected shipping date so I was behind the class in reading, not in the greatest condition, and when I emailed about the status of this book, I received an email blaming the book being stuck at the boarder for it being late and I wasnt able to have tracking information. What would I like to have known before purchasing this book? The sellers reputation!
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
Amazon.com: 3.8 out of 5 stars  225 reviews
68 of 72 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars You say I am wilderness. I am. Nov. 14 2008
By BrianB - Published on Amazon.com
Finally a novel that lives up to the publisher's hype. So much is promised with each new book, but this is truly a fine work. I am unable to judge whether this is great literature, but it satisfied me on many levels. That is a rare occurrence for a piece of writing. I have given five stars to prior reviews, but this is the finest writing that I have yet reviewed for amazon.

The novel reads quickly. You could finish it in a few hours if you were so inclined. I preferred to slow down and savor the contents. I will return this book again, after giving it a season on my shelf. It will never go to the library donation pile in my lifetime! Although I may be a bibliophile, in the extreme I would preserve only a few (hundred) books. This will be one of them.

Morrison uses shifting points of view to bring this short novel to life. The story unfolds through the eyes of each major character, although only one, Florens, speaks in the first person. Her voice is entirely in a vernacular, lacking conventional punctuation and sentence structure. The first few pages are moderately difficult to understand, but it becomes steadily more intelligible as you progress. The varied points of view remind me of The Sound and the Fury, especially in the opening chapter. But Florens is no Benjy, and Morrison's narrative bears only a superficial resemblance to Faulkner's. Although there is plenty of sorrow, and broken relationships all around, there is not a tone of hopeless cynicism.

I went back to read the first chapter several times, discovering more each time. You cannot understand some things at first. For example: "If a pea hen refuses to brood I read it quickly and sure enough that night I see a minha mae standing hand in hand with her little boy, my shoes jamming the pocket of her apron." This is a pivotal moment, but I did not recognize it as such on a first read. Sometimes I don't care for writers who show things early, and explain them later. Morrison is such a good writer that I didn't mind at all. I don't think that you will mind either.

I do not call Morrison a feminist or black writer. I believe those words will put unreasonable limits on how I might think about her work. Her writing reaches beyond the narrow concerns of our present day, to universal truths. She does not gloss over the brutalities and prejudices of slavery, or the lot of women in the 17th century. Far from it. But there are even larger things at stake here. In A Mercy I met myself where I least expected. I recognized myself in Florens, in Lina, in Jacob and even in Sorrow. To see yourself in another is the beginning of love. To give that gift to a reader is a great achievement.
87 of 94 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars "I don't think God knows who we are. I think He would like us, if He knew us, but I don't think He knows about us." Nov. 11 2008
By Mary Whipple - Published on Amazon.com
(4.5 stars) Continuing themes that she has been developing since the start of her career, Nobel Prize-winning author Toni Morrison creates an intense and involving philosophical, Biblical, and feminist novel set in the Atlantic colonies between 1682 and 1690. Her impressionistic story traces slavery from its early roots, using unique voices--African, Native American, and white--while moving back and forth in time. The primary speaker is Florens, a 16-year-old African slave, who tells the reader at the outset that this is a confession, "full of curiosities," and that she has committed a bloody, once-in-a-lifetime crime. In a flashback to 1682, we learn that when Florens was only eight years old, her mother suggested to the Maryland planter who owned the family, that Florens be given to New York farmer Jacob Vaark to settle a debt. Florens never understands why she was abandoned by her mother.

Florens lives and works for the next eight years on Vaark's rural New York farm. Lina, a Native American, who works with her, tells in a parallel narrative how she became one of a handful of survivors of a plague that killed her tribe. Vaark's wife Rebekkah describes leaving England for New York to be married to a man she has never seen. The deaths of their subsequent children are devastating, and Vaark is hoping that eight-year-old Florens will help alleviate Rebekkah's loneliness. Vaark, himself an orphan and poorhouse survivor, describes his journeys from New York to Maryland and Virginia, commenting on the role of religion in the culture of the different colonies, along with their attitudes toward slavery.

All these characters are bereft of their roots, struggling to survive in an alien environment filled with danger and disease. When smallpox threatens Rebekkah's life in 1692, Florens, now sixteen, is sent to find a black freedman who has some knowledge of herbal medicines. Her journey is dangerous, ultimately proving to be the turning point in her life.

Morrison examines the roots of racism going back to slavery's earliest days, providing glimpses of the various religious practices of the time, and showing how all the women are victimized. They are "of and for men," people who "never shape the world, The world shapes us." As the women journey toward self-enlightenment, Morrison describes their progress in often Biblical cadences, and by the end of this novel, the reader understands what "a mercy" really means. An intense and thought-provoking look at various forms of slavery from their beginnings, this short novel has an epic scope, one which admirers of Morrison will celebrate for its intense thematic development, even as they may somewhat regret its sacrifice of fully developed characters. Mary Whipple

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55 of 59 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A short, lyrical , gripping novel, and a great joy to read Nov. 11 2008
By Yesh Prabhu, author of The Beech Tree - Published on Amazon.com
In this short, lyrical and gripping novel, Tony Morrison has undertaken, once again, to explore her favorite subject: the evils of slavery. Written in prose so lovely and mesmerizing that it reminded me of her "Sula", also a short novel, published thirty-five years ago, "A Mercy" was a great joy to read.

Jacob Vaark, a Dutch-born farmer and trader, and Rebekka, his English wife own a tobacco plantation. Even though Jacob owned a few slaves, he did so only as a necessity to run his homestead. Jacob is sympathetic towards orphans and waifs because he himself was parentless at a young age, and had to fend for himself on the streets running small errands.

At the heart of the novel is an act of mercy. When Jacob Vaark travels to Maryland to collect debt from a tobacco plantaion owner named Senor D'Ortega, he finds out that Senor is broke and has no money to pay off the debt. Senor offers Jacob a thin black girl named Florens, a daughter of one of his slaves, as a partial payment of the debt. Florens is smart, and she can read and write also. Florens' mother senses that Jacob is more kind-hearted than her master, and so pleads with Senor to give Florens to Jacob. Her hope is that Florens would have a better life in Jacob's estate. Florens's mother considers this an act of mercy, but the irony is that Florence considers it abandonment.

Several sympathetic characters make the novel interesting and hold a reader's attention. Lina (Messalina), a native American, was sold to Jacob by the Presbytarians who had rescued and saved her. Sorrow, a sea captain's daughter, survives a ship wreck, but ends up in Jacob's plantation as a slave. Willard and Scully are indentured servants who are sent to work at Jacob's plantation by their contract holders. A young black man, a blacksmith, arrives to make an iron gate for Jacob's new house. He is not a slave, but a free man. This man is also knowledgeable about medicinal herbs. Florens falls in love with him.

In this novel Toni Morrison has found her ability to write simple, unadorned and lyrical prose that she mysteriously lost when she wrote "Paradise": "A frightened, long-necked child who did not speak for weeks but when she did, her light, singsong voice was lovely to hear. Some how, some way, the child assuaged the tiny yet eternal yearning for the home Lina once knew, where everyone had anything, and no one had everything."

Reading this novel was an intense, deeply moving, and satisfying experience. Even though the novel is short, it is bright, deep and weighty.
16 of 17 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Readers will come away marveling that out of these fragmented, isolated, brutal pieces came anything resembling unity Nov. 17 2008
By Bookreporter - Published on Amazon.com
Like many Americans, I was first introduced to the work of Toni Morrison during my freshman year of college, when I read THE BLUEST EYE as part of a literature survey course. I moved on to several more of her books --- BELOVED, SONG OF SOLOMON, TAR BABY --- in English and women's studies courses, and have read all her other novels published since, continuing to marvel at her penetrating insights into race, sex and American history. THE BLUEST EYE, her debut, continues to be the one most often taught in college, probably because it's her shortest and most accessible. That is, until now.

Morrison's new book, A MERCY, is perhaps the perfect introduction to this Nobel Prize-winning author's work, offering readers, in fewer than 175 pages, a glimpse into her powerful literary style and keen insights into issues of race, violence, sex, history, identity and community that also demonstrates her brilliance and maturity as a writer.

The America that Morrison shows readers in A MERCY is one in its infancy, one in which "states" were hardly united, when differences of background, religion and ideology marked provincial boundaries as stark as any political border. Set in the 1680s and 1690s, it portrays a region in search of an identity, one in which the definitions of "free" and "slave" are both nebulous and shifting.

At the center of the novel is the household of Jacob Vaark. Vaark, like almost everyone in the colony, is an immigrant, a businessman who lives somewhere in the North but enters into slaveholding --- and the social grasping that seems to accompany it --- almost by accident. He obtains his first slave --- a Native American woman named Lina, whose village has been destroyed by smallpox and whose reputation has been destroyed after a rape --- to be company for his mail-order wife, Rebekka. Eventually, the two women, who develop a close friendship, are joined by another, deeply troubled slave known only as Sorrow.

Finally, the object of the "mercy" of the novel's title is Florens, bought for the Vaark household as a young girl at the entreaty of her mother. As Vaark travels on business and, later, as he becomes obsessed with building a grand home, the women form a family of sorts. After Vaark's death and Rebekka's subsequent illness, however, they discover just how fragile their bonds are, how fragmented their identities.

Vaark's household is something of a microcosm of the nascent country. Besides demonstrating the splintered identities of various American ethnic groups (and even of some individuals), the stories that make up the novel illustrate starkly and powerfully the legacy of violence, betrayal and inhumanity that is part of our nation's heritage. In particular, Morrison illustrates starkly and powerfully the ways in which slavery, in all its forms, robs people of their essential humanity and promotes the kind of "wilderness" that leads to violence, shame and despair.

Readers will come away from A MERCY feeling that they understand not only Morrison's literary techniques but also a little more about American history, marveling that out of these fragmented, isolated, brutal pieces came anything resembling unity.

--- Reviewed by Norah Piehl
14 of 15 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars So perfectly written Nov. 14 2008
By Amazon Customer - Published on Amazon.com
Toni Morrison has once again created a work of gorgeous, delicate beauty. A Mercy is told from the perspective of a new World farmer in 1690, Jacob Vaark, his wife, and their slaves and indentured workers.

Each of them has in some way been set adrift at some time in their lives. There is a sense that a good community has been built among them, in a way. But it is really just a thin illusion, since Jacob's death displays all too well the dependence on his mercy. Women, women of color, poor men, all of them are powerless. And the point of the book is spelled out well with a commentary about the kinds of slavery we set for ourselves.

This is a wonderful book that sets one to thinking about the consequences of acts of mercy and the sometimes hidden motives behind those acts. Dr. Morrison continues to write beautiful books that nonetheless make one take a hard look at both history and the human heart.
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