Book review: God Help The Child by Toni Morrison
God Help The Child by Toni Morrison. A Chatto and Windus publication.
Within a couple of pages, the reader is sucked into the vortex of a powerful story told in a powerfully effective style. This is the eleventh work of the extraordinarily accomplished writer and Nobel Laureate.
A girl child is born to the mother known as Sweetness throughout the book, a child she is both dismayed and repelled by. It`s a hard life for blacks as it is, especially blacks of a certain economic strata, and having such a blue-black girl was going to do no good to either Sweetness or her husband Louis. Louis immediately abandons mother and child, and exits the story, leaving behind a vague, ghostly presence by his absence.
Left with pitifully meagre resources, Sweetness raises the child she names Lula Ann, in the strictest and most loveless manner possible. `Nursing her was like having a pickaninny sucking my teat,` Sweetness explains to the reader in an unemotional manner.
Except, fate has another plan for Lula Ann Bridewell. She grows up, desperately starved of her mother’s love and ready to do anything for a tender glance or touch from the woman who actually forbids Lula Ann from calling her `mother.` But the girl acquires something of an education, falls in with the right mentors and develops a startling style of her own. She starts to own the colour of her skin, to dress only in white in order to highlight that skin.
When we meet Bride formerly known as Lula Ann, she is on the verge of launching her own cosmetic company: You, Girl. She has a terrific looker, the mysterious Booker Starbern, for boyfriend. Life seems as good as it gets.
But Bride has a particular demon to exorcise and so she goes to meet a woman she helped put behind bars for pedophilia, 15 years ago. She gets beaten up for her pains, so badly she needs plastic surgery. Then, Booker walks out on her without any warning.
And one day Bride wakes up to the terror of physical disappearances. She finds the hair in her armpits and pubic region has vanished without trace. Soon, her earlobes close up too, and her magnificent breasts shrink. What is happening to Bride?
After an initial period of wallowing in her misery, (`I’m not sure which is worse, being dumped like trash or whipped like a slave`) Bride gets herself off the floor of her life, determined to regain some vestige of control. She needs to confront the only man she had let her defenses down to, and get back her self-worth. So she sets off to find Booker.
This story has two hearts. At the core of one, it is a beautiful love story, that of Bride and Booker. Listen to Booker on Bride: `Every feature — the ledge of her cheekbones, her invitational mouth, her nose, forehead, chin as well as those eyes — was more exquisite, more aesthetically pleasing because of her obsidian-midnight skin.`
The other darker, deeper heart deals with child abuse. Almost everyone we come across in this book has suffered some sort of abuse when they were children, or watched it happen to others, and been impacted by it. They have demons to chase down and vanquish, or else, to run away from. The utter vulnerability of all the characters comes across in a stark manner.
Here and there you come across lines that light up by themselves. Lines like:
It was raining the next day.
Bullet taps on the windows followed by crystal lines of water.
I had to protect her, Sweetness tries to justify herself. All because of skin privileges.
She felt world-hurt, an awareness of malign forces changing her from a courageous adventurer into a fugitive.
It became clear to Bride why boredom was so fought against. Without distraction or physical activity, the mind shuffled pointless, scattered recollections around and around. Focused worry would have been an improvement over disconnected rags of thought.
He was a Luddite…he had been shaped by talk in the flesh and text on paper.
And finally, Booker`s aunt Queen musing on the couple: They will blow it. Each will cling to a sad little story of hurt and sorrow – some long ago trouble and pain life dumped on their pure and innocent selves. And each one will rewrite that story forever, knowing the plot, guessing the theme, inventing its meaning and dismissing its origin. All the wisdom of the world is contained in those lines.
What a powerful story.