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.

For David Gilmour: A Reading List

The internet’s a bit like Halloween — people feel free to say things behind a mask that they would never say to your face. Last week it was the whole Miley/Sinead thing, where a musician of a certain generation chastised another musician of a certain other generation, in the guise of helpful advice, regarding the younger musician’s sexually provocative performance. Sinead was accused of slut-shaming (not without warrant) and generally being crazy (cruel and uncalled for); Miley then responded by attacking Sinead’s mental health, damaging what credibility she may have had, which resulted in Sinead escalating the conflict to rather silly heights.

This kind of thing is truly unfortunate, focusing attention on disagreements among women while we pretend that a frank discussion about women’s freedom of expression can take place in a neutral, bias-free forum. There are so many things to discuss with this fascinating dust-up beyond one woman’s mental instability and another’s bratty response. Is Miley Cyrus expressing her own sexuality in an empowering way, or is she pandering to male tastes in order to sell records? Is sexuality unique and innate to the individual or socially constructed? And if it is a social construct, how can women claim their bodies for themselves in a sexist culture? How much freedom do female artists have in the commodified world of popular culture? Is there a line between “artists” and pop culture “personalities”? Should there be?

ANYWAY, previous to that kerfuffle, was the David Gilmour ballyhoo. In a brief interview that you can read on the Random House Hazlitt page, Gilmour, without a trace of self-awareness, revealed that he doesn’t teach female writers (or Canadians) in his class at the University of Toronto because he only teaches what he loves, and he doesn’t love any female writers, apart from Virginia Woolf. (Apparently he teaches a course on short fiction. Without mentioning Alice Munro or Mavis Gallant, one supposes.)

I’m sure David Gilmour is a very nice man.  And if you’re reading for pleasure, you should be able to read whatever you like. But he’s teaching a class. And in that capacity he has an obligation to encourage open-mindedness, empathy, critical thinking and curiosity.

Many teachers would say that they learn as much from their students as their students learn from them. In that spirit, I decided to ask some people what they thought David Gilmour should read. I especially wanted to hear from the demographic that might sit in one of David Gilmour’s classes. (Two of my respondents did, in fact, take his class “Love, Sex, and Death” at U of T. One of them dropped out, the other stuck it through to the end.)

So, here you go, David Gilmour. A list of titles hand-picked just for you!


To start off in Gilmour’s comfort zone, Peter suggested A Boy at the Leafs’ Camp by Scott Young because “there are no icky girls in it except Bill Spunkska’s mum.”

Wetlands by Charlotte Roche was Maria’s pick for Gilmour.  In her words, “I think he has the stomach for it.” I haven’t read this book, but I must be one of the few people who hasn’t, because according to Wikipedia, in March 2008 it was the best-selling novel in the world! I’m not sure how much love and death there is in it, but there’s lots of sex. Weird, girly sex.

According to a couple of his students, one of Gilmour’s favourite tropes was middle-aged men going to Paris and  having affairs. So Muna thought he should read Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin. In this book a man goes to Paris and has an affair. Just the kind of book Gilmour loves, except that the characters are gay.

Emma suggested Lives of Girls and Women by Alice Munro, which she read “in two separate classes taught by male professors.” Apparently some men are able to recognize the brilliance of Munro’s ability to bring fully realized characters to life with a few deft strokes of the pen.

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood was Shirley’s pick for Gilmour because “seriously, he could have inspired it.” The thing about Margaret Atwood’s speculative fiction is that to some of us, it doesn’t seem farfetched.

Katie had two choices for David Gilmour. The first suggestion was Bear by Marian Engel, which is written by a Canadian woman (two strikes against it there) and features some hot girl on bear action. The second was Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom by bell hooks. Race, class, gender, and pedagogy — ooh, a heady mix, and perfect for this list.

And finally, two suggestions from Diyaa: Beloved by Toni Morrison and The Color Purple by Alice Walker. Because, in Diyaa’s words, “I think Mr. Gilmour thinks only “Serious Heterosexual Men” write about Serious Things. Well he’s most definitely wrong.”

Have a suggestion to add? Let me know in the comments!