The new novel from Nobel laureate Toni Morrison.
Spare and unsparing, God Help the Child is a searing tale about the way childhood trauma shapes and misshapes the life of the adult. At the center: a woman who calls herself Bride, whose stunning blue-black skin is only one element of her beauty, her boldness and confidence, her success in life; but which caused her light-skinned mother to deny her even the simplest forms of love until she told a lie that ruined the life of an innocent woman, a lie whose reverberations refuse to diminish . . . Booker, the man Bride loves and loses, whose core of anger was born in the wake of the childhood murder of his beloved brother . . . Rain, the mysterious white child, who finds in Bride the only person she can talk to about the abuse she’s suffered at the hands of her prostitute mother . . . and Sweetness, Bride’s mother, who takes a lifetime to understand that “what you do to children matters. And they might never forget.” – Goodreads
There’s something special about how Toni Morrison writes. She has a particular skill for writing prose that seems, at first glance, to be very simple. The language she uses isn’t complex; her words are short and utilitarian. Her delivery is blunt and to the point. And yet.
By the time I was halfway through this book I realized that her language wasn’t simple, rather it was efficient. Economical. Exactly what was needed to provide maximum impact and not a flowery syllable more. This uncomplicated prose evokes a sense of vulnerability when it comes to her characters that cuts deep and bleeds you dry.
This book isn’t long – it’s only 178 pages (with wide-spaced text). So it’s not a huge commitment and shouldn’t take you long to get through. But it will be with you for long after you close its covers and place it back on the shelf with a lingering look.
The book centres on Bride, the blacker than black daughter of light-skinned parents. Her mother and father both react badly to her dark skin – her father refuses to believe she’s his and leaves, her mother avoids any physical contact with Bride. This upbringing leaves her both emotionally stunted, and driven to prove her worth.
Years later, she is a successful businesswoman with an exotic beauty that draws attention wherever she goes. She is in a relationship with a man she enjoys, but knows very little about – exactly how she likes it. Then one day he dumps her and leaves, giving her no explanation. This is the first in a chain of events that will force her to confront her past and the indelible marks it left on her, and to really consider the shallowness with which she has been living her life.
The chapters swap perspective between Bride, the people in her life – among them her best friend, ex-boyfriend, mother – and a third person omniscient viewpoint that takes over when their stories cross. Through these different perspectives we learn what motivates the choices each makes, how they view Bride (and how she thinks they view her) and how the main characters evolve.
God Help the Child, while short enough to be devoured in a single sitting, requires more attention than that. Despite Morrison’s straightforward style, there are lines and passages that are so poetically evocative that they stand out in sharp relief against her prose and take your breath away. These passages will force you to stop, re-read, and revel in their beauty.
If you can’t tell by now, I’m blown away by this book. It is one of those rare reading experiences that isn’t quite comfortable, isn’t quite what you expect it to be, and isn’t quite a happy story… but it will make you feel privileged to read it. This book may be fictional, but it holds more truth and observes more about human nature than anything you’ll find in a work of non-fiction.
Some of my favourite quotes from the book:
“I don’t think many people appreciate silence or realize that it is as close to music as you can get.” – p. 69
“The moon was a toothless grin and even the stars, seen through the tree limb that had fallen like a throttling arm across the windshield, frightened her. The piece of sky she could glimpse was a dark carpet of gleaming knives pointed at her and aching to be released.” – p. 83
“Whether he was lying under her body, hovering above it or holding her in his arms, her blackness thrilled him. Then he was certain that he not only held the night, he owned it, and if the night he held in his arms was not enough, he could always see starlight in her eyes.” – p. 133
Author: Toni Morrison
Published By: Knopf Canada
Released: April 21, 2015
Genre: Fiction, Character-Driven
Date Read: April 17-21, 2015