God Help the Child by Toni Morrison
8th May 2015
I had better begin with a disclaimer: If this book had been written by anyone other than Nobel prize-winning, voice-of-nation’s conscious, Toni Morrison, it would probably have got 5 stars. The curse of writing books that are widely acknowledged to be near flawless, is that readers will hold you to account for missing that mark, even by a small margin – and it is a small margin, because Morrison’s eleventh novel is another brilliantly potent example of the racial poison that still pervades a supposedly civilised world.
Lula Ann Bridewell, who goes by “Bride” to match her stark choice of clothing, was born “Midnight black, Sudanese black” to a father who abandons her and a mother who cannot touch her. In a community in which “passing” is currency in a white-dominant society, Bride is deemed “really wrong”, powerless to alter the ill-fated course of her life as a blue-black girl.
It is this impasse that causes a young Bride to tell an unforgivable lie that ruins the life of a teacher at her school in a bid to earn the affection of her mother, who insists she call her Sweetness and looks upon her as a shackle that chains her to the wrong side of the racial divide.
Of course, the other viable currency in the Western world, is beauty, and Bride is rich in that. As she grows into a woman, she quickly learns how to capitalise on her looks, building a career on them and an influential circle of acquaintances. It is not enough though, to make her feel secure in her adult world, or to keep Booker, the equally beautiful man she loves, who ups and leaves her when she seeks exoneration for her childhood actions.
Suddenly alone and violently denied the forgiveness she seeks, Bride begins to notice regressions in her physical development – shedding her body hair and losing her breasts. Convinced that Booker’s unexplained disappearance is the cause of her increasingly pubescent appearance, Bride sets off on a journey to a town called Whiskey to get some answers.
while these voids in her work have consistently proved her genius, it is the gaps in this novel that make it a less satisfying readAs Morrison’s writing has taught us, life is full of complex, painful, unanswerable questions, and while these voids in her work have consistently proved her genius, it is the gaps in this novel that make it a less satisfying read than, say, Beloved or The Bluest Eye.
This is a slim book, which does not provide the space for the expansion that Morrison’s themes and characters deserve. There are whole sub-plots that look like the kind of trajectories of moral complexity that Morrison built her career upon, that in fact, lead to nowhere. I felt almost cheated when I met the straight-talking Miss Q. Green, who burns her bedsprings so late in the narrative.
Despite all this, Bride is a masterpiece – a complex knot of a person who is the product of family who provided nowhere to turn, the result of being made to feel both beautifully dark and darkly “wrong”.
Toni Morrison’s stories are wounds infected by normalised injustices, picked open and drained – Bride’s feels like a slightly less expert job. But it is a job few can execute as well as Morrison.
She is a writer whose words never fail to resonate and this book will stay with you regardless: “Taught me a lesson I should have known all along. What you do to children matters. And they might never forget.”