For all its acclaim, the Nobel Prize for literature is often seen as an epitaph. The laureates rarely produce new work that measures up to, let alone surpasses, their past achievements. Think Seamus Heaney, Wole Soyinka and Czeslaw Milosz, admirable writers who are rightly feted on the world stage but whose best works are, hitherto, behind them.

Toni Morrison is an exception.

The 1993 Nobel laureate best known for "Beloved," "The Bluest Eye" and "Sula" has delivered a new work that shows her at the top of her creative powers. "A Mercy" is an act of vivid, propulsive invention, a slender but rococo, richly layered work that takes us into the web of interdependencies and dreams of a community in 17th-century America.

Like visual artist Tom Feelings and others, Morrison has made it her project to give flesh and bone, aspiration and deep humanity to slaves, whom may of us think of as anonymous stick figures packed sardine-like in the hulls of ships.

In "A Mercy," she plumbs the souls of her characters with a keen understanding and lyric grace.

The novel plunks us, like a galloping horse, into a 17th-century America where motherhood and love are means to self-fulfillment, and where conflicts intersect like raw nerves. Catholics rail against Protestants; captives and indentured workers curse the nominally free.

At the center of this world is Florens, a slave girl in the hold of the Jacob Vaark estate. She is in love with a free black man. The Jacob estate is dominated by women, all unfree, all trying to find solace, safety and self-actualization in a society governed by religious and racial intolerance, by pestilence and virulent superstition. When Jacob dies before he is able to inhabit a new, bigger house that he is building for his wife, the world is turned on its ear.

Morrison's language is richly evocative: "In the best of times, the girl dragged misery like a tail," she says of a character named Sorrow. "There was a man in Lina's village like that. His name she had forgotten along with the rest of her language, but it meant 'trees fall behind him.'"

Or this: "I lie near the sick kid and the fireplace and my sleep breaks into pieces from their voices."

Still, for all her imaginative heft, Morrison is exacting and a demanding writer. It takes re-reading, particularly of the early going, to become acclimated to some of the syntax and original diction that she invents for her characters. And there is not a terrible amount that happens here -- this is a historical novel of the personal dimension.

No matter. With her vivid language, Morrison takes us to a world where we might see ourselves not as we are, but as we were. And we might also see, in this era of new beginnings, the bitter yet forgiving foundations of the freedom that so many have longed for.

Theater critic Rohan Preston is at 612-673-4390.