Perhaps the thing I love most about Toni Morrison’s writing is that she doesn’t coddle the reader, in any way. Her characters and their lives are nuanced to the point of defying any neat explanation or analysis, and she doesn’t go out of her way to make sure readers get a comfortable grasp on what they’re supposed to be thinking as they read– she just tells the story and lets readers figure out their own thoughts and emotions as they go.
This is true in her newest book as well: God Help the Child, published this year and her first book that takes place in current-day America rather than looking back at history, is unyielding when it comes to making the readers face the experiences of the characters. The story starts with a light-skinned black mother talking about how appalled she was when her daughter was born very dark, “midnight black, Sudanese black.” The baby is so black that her husband– also light-skinned– accuses her of infidelity and leaves. She instructs her daughter to call her Sweetness instead of Mother or Mom or Mommy, hides her when she visits the landlord, and withholds love and affection. From there, the book jumps ahead to when the daughter, who calls herself Bride (shortened from her full name of Lula Ann Bridewell), is in her twenties. She has grown up to embrace her blackness as beauty and has built a successful career; however, the story picks up at a time of turmoil in her life, as Booker, her boyfriend, just left her without discernible reason (simply stating “You not the woman I want”) and Sofia Huxley, a teacher she helped put in prison for child molestation, is being released after fifteen years. The novel’s plot really kicks off when Bride decides to help Sofia reintegrated into society and goes off looking for Booker to demand an explanation. Neither journey goes as planned.
On a personal note, I read God Help the Child right on the heels of Nella Larsen’s Passing, a 1929 novel about the politics of skin tone within the black community and about “passing” for white. In Passing, there is a lengthy discussion between three light-skinned black women– one of whom is living as a black woman, with a black partner; one of whom is living as a white woman with a white partner, but whose husband knows she’s black; and one of whom is living as a white woman with a white partner, whose husband doesn’t know she’s black and is virulently racist– about the anxiety surrounding the possibility of giving birth to children whose skin is darker than your own. As one of the characters put it, “No one wants a dark child.”
Those words jumped back to me as I read the first pages of God Help the Child. The idea of “passing” and certain skin colors being more valuable than others even within the black community is something that has featured in Morrison’s work before, including being a major part of the plot in Song of Solomon, but it is discussed right away in her new novel– Sweetness, in the opening paragraph, talks about how confused she was by Bride’s dark skin because her whole family was “high yellow” and could have “passed” if they wanted to, with her grandmother even making the decision to do so. (Passing usually required leaving your community and family and cutting off all contact, lest your true identity be discovered.) Although the idea of not loving your child because of what they look like might be difficult to grasp for readers in 2015, as Nella Larsen’s novel shows (as well as a whole host of literature and scholarship on the subject), Sweetness’ reaction is firmly situated within historical and cultural reality, born of the necessity of survival– the whiter you can appear, the more opportunities are open to you, and having a very dark-skinned child prevents you from appearing white.
As many other reviewers have said, God Help the Child is primarily a book about childhood trauma, and about the ways we carry that trauma into adulthood. It’s about the decisions that children make to get their parents to love them when love is withheld, and the consequences of those decisions; it’s about child molestation, about losing family members, about being unable to see past your own experience when your experience was blinding, about overcoming, forgiving, making peace, letting others overcome and forgive and make peace with you.
The novel has a lot of Morrison’s usual stylistic choices: there are many different threads that sometimes wind together and sometimes drift off on their own, that eventually create a picture of the whole story, and there are many shifting POVs, including ones that show up for only a chapter or two. There is a slight element of magical realism that the reader is unsure whether it’s literal or not, when Bride finds herself physically transforming back into a little girl as she has to confront her past. There are characters that we have seen before, but that somehow still seem fresh and relevant– the traumatized youth that is forced down a difficult path as an adult to grow (two, in this case), the incredibly imperfect mother, the wise old aunt figure, the occasional, often odd white characters that show up and connect with the main characters in surprising ways, and rollicking settings that reflect the mood and the purpose of various plot twists. And, as always, the language is stunningly beautiful.
God Help the Child is sparse– less than 200 pages long– but sharp, emotionally heavy, fast-paced, and at times disconcerting. As a longtime Morrison fan, part of me misses the sprawling stories of her earlier novels, but at the same time I can’t help but admire what she is able to do in so few pages, and I spent days afterwards digesting what I’d read; I didn’t feel cheated by the brevity of the story. As long as Toni Morrison keeps writing, I will keep reading.