God Help the Child by Toni Morrison: a review

“Let the reader enter with his or her own imagination.” Toni Morrison

God Help the ChildToni Morrison is one of the most respected and beloved writers working in America today. The winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature and the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction is known for her beautiful writing, memorable characters, and vivid expression of the African-American experience, and novels such as Sula, Song of Solomon and Beloved are modern American classics. Now 84, Morrison continues to experiment with narrative and language, and use writing as “a way of thinking.” Her latest novel, God Help the Child, explores themes of race and childhood, themes that are familiar to her readers and closely echo those of her first novel, The Bluest Eye.

God Help the Child has several narrators, but focuses on two characters, Bride and Booker, and their relationship. Bride, a cosmetics company owner, sublimates the pain of her loveless upbringing  and her guilt over a childhood act of betrayal, by cultivating beauty and pursuing success. Born with blue-black skin to a light-skinned mother, Sweetness, Bride spends her childhood craving her mother’s love and approval but never receiving it. Booker is a musician who hides his own childhood pain. He’s captivated by Bride’s beauty and they begin an affair. But in the wake of Bride’s attempts to atone for the guilty act she’s kept secret for years, Booker’s own pain is exposed and he abruptly leaves. Through Bride’s attempts to find him, she learns more about Booker, and herself, and what she must do for healing and forgiveness.

The voice of Sweetness, Bride’s mother, drew me into the story on page one. Sweetness’s awfulness makes for compelling reading and I wanted to see more of Sweetness and Bride, and of how the mother’s discomfort around her own daughter “so black she scared me” affected Bride. “What you do to children matters,” observes Sweetness. “And they might never forget.”

But Sweetness’s voice is replaced by Bride’s, and then a host of other narrators. Characters tell their stories, sometimes adding to our knowledge of Bride, but occasionally feeling like a distraction. The multiple points of view might be more satisfying in a longer book, but at 178 pages, peripheral characters in God Help the Child remain unexplored and even Bride doesn’t have the indelible stamp of authenticity that the characters in Beloved and The Bluest Eye, for example, do. Bride’s mysterious physical transformation and encounter with Rain and her parents in the woods feels more symbolic than entrancing, and ultimately doesn’t seem closely connected with her journey to, as Morrison put it, “becoming a three-dimensional human being.”

Despite these quibbles, Morrison’s compassion, intelligence and thoughtful writing are always welcome. The author’s depiction of racism and shadism, and the lifelong wounds left by childhood abuse, both emotional and physical, are visceral and affecting. There are many points in the book where the writing stops you in your tracks. Where Sweetness is withholding and cold, Booker’s parents nurture body and soul, treating the weekend breakfast table as a forum for questions and discussion served with a banquet of “hot biscuits, short and flaky; grits, snow-white and tongue-burning hot; eggs beaten into pale saffron creaminess ; sizzling sausage patties, sliced tomatoes, strawberry jam, freshly squeezed orange juice, cold milk in Mason jars.” Booker’s last memory of his brother Adam “skateboarding down the sidewalk in twilight, his yellow T-shirt fluorescent under the Northern Ash trees,” is moving and lovely.

It’s writing like this, poetic and luminously alive, that reminds you why you came to read Toni Morrison again. And if there isn’t as much evocative storytelling in God Help the Child as you would like, you can be forgiven for being a bit disappointed only because she’s set the bar so high in the past. Morrison explained the act of writing to an interviewer as “control. Nobody tells me what to do. It’s mine. It’s free. It’s a way of thinking. It’s pure knowledge.” Lucky for us that she’s still pursuing that knowledge on the page.

For more on Toni Morrison and God Help the Child, read this New York Times feature by Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah, and listen to a brief excerpt of the author reading for the audio book.