Several chapters of Toni Morrison’s “God Help the Child” begin with a simple, harrowing statement. It’s not my fault, says one narrator. I’m scared, says another. Then: She’s lying. I thought he was a predator. Stark and straightforward, the phrases place brutal trauma in the context of everyday experience, tracing complicated psychological states in relatively inarticulate characters. Such is the essential project of Morrison’s novel. “God Help the Child” masterfully explores the nature of victimhood and the consequences of child abuse through a series of fascinating and believable narrators, and, while it fails to measure up to Morrison’s best work, it nonetheless serves as a fine addition to her canon.
One of the novel’s most interesting creations is its main character, Bride. Young, beautiful, and extremely dark-skinned, Bride owns a Jaguar, works at a cosmetics company, and enjoys the attentions of her boyfriend, Booker. After he leaves her and disappears, though, Bride begins to unravel both physically and emotionally; her miserable, loveless childhood begins to resurface. Her history and breakdown eventually become intermingled with the peripheral stories of her friend Brooklyn, her mother Sweetness, a child named Rain, and Booker himself, all characters with their own early emotional scars.
Among relatively conventional characters, Bride embodies a strange and compelling combination of ethereality and blunt human familiarity. Some of her actions—unexpectedly offering friendship to a woman who she helped to commit to prison for child rape, for one—seem utterly removed from the novel’s reality, and depictions of her physical appearance further serve to distance her from the everyday. Booker describes her as “a midnight Galatea,” a composition of night darkness and starlight. Her body also undergoes a transformation that can only be described as strangely magical-realist, reflecting this borderline fantastic tendency of many of Morrison’s novels.
However, Bride’s enigmatic allure often mixes intriguingly with a squalidly ordinary sense of arrogance and insecurity. Her makeup line is called “YOU, GIRL,” an insistent and narcissistic affirmation of self appropriate for a woman who whines about a lack of nail polish in the backwoods and repeatedly asks herself why she can be sad if she is beautiful. Bride’s flaws remain more humorous than truly repulsive, though, and Morrison imbues her character with occasional flashes of virtue. She may be bratty, but she also demonstrates a touching idealization of her friend Brooklyn—“the one person I can trust,” she rhapsodizes—and a willingness to grow and learn. The Bride at the end of the novel is a far more sincere and honest person than the Bride of the beginning, having completed an immense but believable metamorphosis. And, most importantly, Bride undergoes a deeper transformation: An initially submerged strain of childhood torment surfaces and becomes strength. This successful psychological and tonal complexity becomes the novel’s primary source of texture.
Bride also commands a distinctive narrative voice. Her sections are readily distinguishable from those of Brooklyn, Rain, and Sweetness, each of which involves its own complicated language: Brooklyn juggles colloquial humor and startling nastiness, Rain speaks plainly, and Sweetness combines confused earnestness with profound guilt. Booker’s sections take place primarily in the third person, but the rough stream-of-consciousness Morrison utilizes nonetheless succeeds in portraying a complex character, a deeply passionate and tormented man. In one particularly subtle instance, Booker remembers the September before a childhood trauma as a time when “nothing anywhere had begun to die.” None of the characters—even Booker, an amateur poet—are especially poetic, and Morrison conspicuously avoids the intricate, lush, lyrical prose that characterizes her early work. Still, she manages to convey an incredible level of human nuance through relatively sparse and natural speech.
The overlapping narratives serve a thematic purpose as well as an aesthetic end. Events appear from different perspectives, creating an insightful analysis of miscommunication in female friendships, romantic relationships, and families. Bride adores Brooklyn as someone she “couldn’t have healed without,” while Booker recalls the same person as an “obnoxious pseudofriend.” Likewise, Booker recalls encircling Bride’s waist upon meeting her as “more than a natural gesture; it was an inevitable one,” though Brooklyn regards the same instance as predatory. On a more fundamental level, the narrative dissonances reflect a key question about the nature of childhood. Sweetness recalls certain interactions with Bride as much more benevolent than Bride herself remembers them, and Sweetness justifies actions that her daughter condemns. The result is as a thoughtful exploration of parental culpability and early trauma.
This investigation of intimate social life—the tension between trust and wariness, the navigation of openness and resistance—is only one of the novel’s surface considerations. On a deeper level, “God Help the Child” considers the idea of victimhood in society across race and gender lines, and it does so with wonderful delicacy and perceptivity. The color symbolism, for example, becomes powerful without ever being explicitly explained: Appropriate to the modern-day, illusorily post-racial world, Bride wears white clothes to seem sophisticated but never acknowledges the prejudicial implications. The idea of mastering one’s blackness by becoming white constitutes just one of many complex concepts buried deep in the text.
Then again, the novel’s explorations of race never even approach the brilliance of those undertaken in “Beloved,” nor does it match “The Bluest Eye” for depth in its consideration of child abuse: [the][CAPS] former is one of the seminal works on race in American literature, and the latter is an unrelenting and viciously complex investigation into familial violence. “God Help the Child” inevitably fails to live up to such high standards. Still, the novel does not seem like a bid at another Nobel Prize-winning masterpiece. Short, plot-driven, and more colloquial than complexly poetic, the book is precisely the incisive fable it attempts to be.
—Staff writer Charlotte L. R. Anrig can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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