God Help the Child: A Novel
By Toni Morrison
Knopf, 192 pages

God Help the Child, Toni Morrison’s 11th novel, begins compellingly enough. A woman named Sweetness, “light-skinned, with good hair, what we call high yellow,” recoils from her newborn “midnight black, Sudanese black” daughter in horror and embarrassment. She refuses to breastfeed or let the child call her “Mama.” When her husband sees the baby, he accuses Sweetness of cheating and leaves. “Her color is a cross she will always carry,” Sweetness sighs.

Right away, the Morrisonian themes are there. There will be racism, specifically, that of light-skinned blacks toward dark-skinned; and there will be heartache, specifically, that of a daughter spurned and belittled by her own mother. There will also be struggle—damaged souls desperate to transcend terrible pasts—and there will be child abuse, both physical and emotional, before the novel ends. Sweetness’s chapter reads like an evil oracle; the reader braces for dreadful things.

But the second chapter is so different in tone, and so astoundingly vapid, that it might belong to another book. We encounter Bride, Sweetness’s daughter, all grown up and in the process of being dumped by some no-good mister who delivers a parting diss (“You not the woman I want”) on his way out the door. Bride is bummed, but not too bummed. “Clearly he was just using me since I had money and a crotch,” she grumbles. And besides, “our affair wasn’t all that spectacular…nothing like those double-page spreads in fashion magazines, you know, couples standing half naked in surf, looking so fierce and downright mean, their sexuality like lightning and the sky going dark to show off the shine of their skin.”

Good thing Bride’s still got her career as regional manager (“that’s like being a captain”) of a small cosmetics business for which she has invented a brand called YOU, GIRL: Cosmetics for Your Personal Millennium. “It’s for girls and women of all complexions from ebony to lemonade to milk,” Bride explains, though she seems much less interested in empowering and beautifying fellow sisters than in her job’s outsized luxury perks. Whenever she can, Bride reclines on silk pillows, nibbles asparagus and lobster salad, sips apple martinis, totes Louis Vuitton. She drives a Jaguar with vanity plates and wears only white. Apparently Sweetness was wrong; instead of being a cross to bear, Bride’s skin is her greatest asset.

Not that it’s all peaches in brandy (another Bride favorite) in YOU, GIRL land. After her man takes off, Bride hops in the Jag and heads to a women’s prison where a child molester named Sofia Huxley is about to “strut through the bars I pushed her behind.” It’s a bit unclear; was Bride molested, or did she point the finger in some other child’s behalf? Whatever the case, Sofia’s not happy to see her: Bride is clobbered with her own stiletto and thrown onto the sidewalk. Her face is a bloody mess, and she calls her best friend, Brooklyn, “the one person I can trust. Completely.”

Now Brooklyn (a white sidekick with dreadlocks who says things like “Hey girlfriend, no pity party. Let’s get out of this dump”) gets a chapter. And then so does Sofia the child molester, and even the guy who dumped Bride (he turns out to be a major character despite his no-big-whoop departure in chapter two). His name is Booker Starburn, and he’s a complicated piece of work—gorgeous, mysterious, damaged, a writer of prose poems and a player of the jazz trumpet. Booker’s brother was murdered by a child molester when he was young; he has never quite recovered, though it takes many pages for his secret to emerge. For now, though, Booker’s just the guy Bride has decided is the love of her life. “I stroked every inch of his golden skin, sucked his earlobes,” she suddenly remembers. “There is no place on my body his lips did not turn into bolts of lightning.” She takes to carrying around a shaving brush he left behind, the better to stroke her own skin and evoke his vanished kisses.

This is bewildering. Whatever happened to Mr. Not-Even-A-Magazine-Ad? Nothing in the book so far justifies or makes plausible Bride’s brand-new Booker obsession. An exceptionally generous reader might decide that this is the whole point (perhaps Bride is damaged by her mother’s neglect—even though it has been only briefly mentioned—and thus perpetually represses her true feelings?). Still, calling Bride’s haplessness a deliberate literary choice is a real stretch.

The sad fact is, God Help the Child is full of unearned epiphanies. Revelations come out of nowhere, and convenient backstories are hastily filled in whenever Morrison feels the urge to flesh out a minor character or buttress some particular point. Again and again, Morrison describes an event or interaction, explains its significance, then drops the whole idea and moves on. Nothing in the book coheres.

The dialogue is baffling and artificial, and the scenes are mortifyingly over-staged. In the course of a single restaurant conversation, Brooklyn “widens her eyes,” “stares open mouthed then squints,” fixes Bride “with an intense glare,” then “closes her eyes like a nun faced with porn.” For emphasis, she slaps the table. Several chapters later, so does Bride: “Damn!” she says, with the requisite slap. “You’re absolutely right! Totally right! This is about me, not him. Me!’”

The expository writing is worse. Nothing is shown that is not also told, in language that feels like shorthand and is embarrassingly trite. Here is Bride explaining her connection with Booker: “What was important in our relationship, other than our lovemaking and his complete understanding of me, was the fun we had. Dancing in the clubs, other couples watching us with envy, boat rides with friends, hanging out on the beach.” Here is Morrison, halfheartedly trying to convince us of a special bond between Bride and Rain, yet another abused child: “Rain giggled as she described her homeless life, relishing her smarts, her escapes, while Bride fought against the danger of tears for anyone other than herself. Listening to this tough little girl who wasted no time on self-pity, she felt a companionship that was surprisingly free of envy.” Bride’s response to Rain comes out of nowhere; here, as everywhere in the book, Morrison ties nothing together and lets nothing build.

A big part of the problem is Bride herself, who is so shallow that she almost seems addled. This is too bad, because we end up spending quite a bit of time with our heroine, who—after deciding her true destiny lies with Booker—sets off in her Jaguar to hunt him down. The rest of the plot amounts, basically, to a solo road trip gone wrong. Within 10 pages, Bride has crashed the car, been rescued by a family of off-the-grid hippies, and discovered that her breasts, pubic hair, and the piercings in her ears have mysteriously disappeared. A sex dream about Booker (in which he “slid between her legs what they called the pride and wealth of nations”) brings a dubious epiphany: “That’s when she understood that the body changes began not simply after he left, but because he left.” What?

The couple’s inevitable reunion—described in language that’s either bizarrely specific (“Bride ran nine quick steps forward and slapped Booker’s face as hard as she could”) or hopelessly clichéd—culminates in a note Booker composes to his brother, murdered in childhood. “I apologize for enslaving you in order to chain myself to the illusion of control and the cheap seduction of power,” he writes while Bride, tuckered out, sleeps beside him. “No slaveowner could have done it better.” This makes zero sense, but by this point we have given up. Best to just nod quietly; if Booker says he enslaved his dead brother’s memory to chain himself to something-or-other, so he did.

And then, near the end of the book, there’s a surprise:

It began slowly, gently, as it often does: shy, unsure of how to proceed, fingering its way, slithering tentatively at first because who knows how it might turn out, then gaining confidence in the ecstasy of air, of sunlight, for there was neither in the weeds where it had curled.

It had been lurking in the yard where Queen Olive had burned bedsprings to destroy the annual nest of bedbugs. Now it traveled quickly, flashing now and then a thin red lick of flame, then dying down for seconds before springing up again stronger, thicker, now that the way and the goal were clear: a tasty length of pine rotting at the trailer’s pair of back steps. Then the door, more pine, sweet, soft. Finally there was the joy of sucking delicious embroidered fabric of lace, of silk, of velvet.

This type of literary device (fire as narrator) isn’t uncommon in Morrison, and a violent conflagration certainly fits the novel’s overwrought themes. What shocks the reader is the presence of actual good writing—though it shouldn’t. After all, Morrison has a Nobel Prize for Literature. If only fire could have narrated the entire story!

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