Toni Morrison’s new novel, God Help the Child, is slim but dangerous, a blade without a handle. There’s no safety to be found in it: each character—a runaway, an unloved child, an abandoned wife, a felon—balances on the edge of disaster and violence. No one comes from a comfortable home or has a comfortable home to go back to. This is a book of outsiders, but it welcomes you in.
One of the enduringly beautiful things about Morrison is that she wears her genius lightly, with grace. One cannot imagine her presenting the world with grad-students-only work like Finnegan’s Wake, or a massive, metaphysical tome like Gravity’s Rainbow. Perhaps, as a Nobel Laureate, she has already proven her worth and doesn’t need to show off. Her talent is to be as good as she is and yet still write books everyone can appreciate. This latest novel is no exception. Readers from adolescents to highbrow critics will find a lot to engage with, and be moved by, in God Help the Child.
In it Morrison acknowledges the reality of childhood pain, the way it follows us like a shadow as we grow up, prodding us toward self-defeating and sometimes vicious actions. She shows us how pain can make us selfish, because while real self-care is difficult and time-consuming, lashing out, as a momentarily satisfying alternative, is easy and cheap.
The novel’s protagonist is a woman who calls herself Bride and wears only white to contrast with her skin, so dark it’s described as “blue-black” and “obsidian-midnight.” Her complexion disgusted her father, who rejected mother and child alike after her birth and fled. Although Bride’s mother stayed, she remained at arm’s length, instructing her daughter to call her “Sweetness” rather than “Mom,” and pushing the girl who would become Bride to an unforgivable betrayal in an attempt to gain her mother’s affection.
As an adult, Bride discovers her beauty: perfect breasts, an arresting face, “hair like a million black butterflies asleep on her head.” Everyone is drawn to her, if also often afraid. She parlays patience and talent into professional success. Still, she is unsatisfied. When her penniless but good-hearted lover leaves her, and an attempt to make amends for past wrongs fails, she goes on a journey, risking everything she has worked for in order to figure out what her priorities really are, and to what extent she will allow her past to define her.
In lesser hands than Morrison’s, much of this might read as clunky allegory. The characters’ names, for example: Queen, a majestic older woman who has had and discarded numerous husbands; Booker, with his two degrees; Rain, a small wounded girl who serves as a reminder that cruelty befalls children of all races; Brooklyn, an ambitious white woman with dreadlocks. Even one of the few characters with a more commonplace name, Adam, reads as representative: the first man. But Morrison deals with her material deftly, allowing us to draw conclusions and complicating those conclusions at the same time. White-wearing Bride is far from pure. Booker is dissatisfied with school and finds comfort working with his hands. Sweetness isn’t.
No lesson here is simple, and no ending is exactly happy, though Morrison grants more hope to her protagonists than Joan Didion does in Play It As It Lays, a similarly taut, dramatic story about a complicated woman in a fancy car driving through California. Even so, hope does not cancel out trauma. It only eases the pain enough to allow survivors to connect.
Trauma, in Morrison’s universe, is not ennobling. It is an all-too-common fact of life. She doesn’t romanticize the pain these characters experience and inflict; she doesn’t pretend it makes them beautiful or innocent any more than it makes them rotten and mean. Like the love they struggle to have for each other, it only makes them human.
God Help the Child is on sale now.