I was first introduced to Toni Morrison through Beloved (1987) in my high school English class. I remember Beloved being powerful and disturbing, but I’m guessing I would get more out of it now. Toni Morrison is an impressive woman, though, so when I saw she had a new book out: God Help the Child (2015), I immediately got on the library’s waitlist.
I should just accept, before I get started, that my review is not going to do justice to this novel. It is complex and disturbing and probably requires a lot more critical thinking than I can give it. This may be an odd comparison, but I think of Toni Morrison and Cormac McCarthy as similar writers. They are both incredibly talented and use simple language to create something more visceral and powerful than its parts. I read both authors with a feeling of dread in my stomach, knowing that they will take the narrative to ugly and disturbing places that other authors wouldn’t dare.
God Help the Child revolves primarily around Bride, a young Black woman who has a prestigious job in Los Angeles at a cosmetics company where she is developing a new line of makeup. She is gorgeous, with striking blue-black skin that complements her always-white outfits. She has grown into a world that has learned to appreciate her unique beauty, but it wasn’t always that way. She was born Lula Ann to a mother who was disgusted by her.
“It’s not my fault. So you can’t blame me. I didn’t do it and have no idea how it happened. It didn’t take more than an hour after they pulled her out from between my legs to realize something was wrong. Really wrong. She was so black she scared me. Midnight black, Sudanese black. I’m light-skinned, with good hair, what we call high yellow, and so is Lula Ann’s father…I hate to say it, but from the very beginning in the maternity ward, the baby, Lula Ann, embarrassed me.”
Bride has saved up money in order to give cash and a plane ticket voucher to a woman who is getting paroled after fifteen years in jail. Some of this book involves figuring out who this woman is, how she is connected to Bride, and how they connect in the present.
Another part of the book is Bride’s mysterious boyfriend, Booker Starbern, who recently told her “You not the woman I want” and left her. She loves him. “To them [other men], anything besides my flirting or their pronouncements would lead to disagreements, arguments, breakups. I never could have described my childhood to them as I did to Booker.” Yet she knows almost nothing about him.
“Taught me a lesson I should have known all along. What you do to children matters. And they might never forget.” The main theme of this book seems to be how what happens to you as a kid lasts with you forever, whether that be neglect, disinterest or abuse. Child sexual abuse runs rampant throughout this book, affecting almost every character. In addition, in a book that is generally realistic, Morrison changes Bride in physically impossible ways, which both informs Bride’s mental state and is deeply disturbing.
I don’t want to go into any real detail about the plot because I think it’s best if you discover it as you go, but what that leaves me with is a very disjointed review. Let me just say that God Help the Child is original, layered, powerful, disturbing, well-written, and thought provoking. Each sentence is a plainly spoken, small kernel of truth about the world, and this book is definitely worth reading.
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