It’s a strange, disturbing thing to read a contemporary Toni Morrison novel – a woman who has been at home for decades exorcising the demons of our collective American past. Yet even in the present day, her characters are hung up on ghosts. God Help the Child is a story, like all Morrisonian tales, woven in different voices, all tied to the cycle of abuse that starts in childhood and seems to never end. There’s Sweetness, a mother who finds it impossible to love her too-dark child, Lula Ann. There’s Bride, the reborn adult version of Lula-Ann, wielding her beauty like a scythe across the scorched western landscape. There’s Booker, a man who refuses to let go of his dead brother who was brutally murdered when they were just boys.
At times, the abuse is overwhelming. No one in this Morrison novel is left untouched. It almost verges on melodramatic parody as each dark secret is revealed. In some ways the novel comes across as a bourgeois version of Precious, where instead of an inner city girl, we have a fashionista – both surrounded by horrors that know no bounds. Oprah and Lee Daniels must be drooling over this.
But Morrison refuses to let the reader get away that easily. The novel can not be dismissed as artsy, exploitative trash. The book is as insular, intimate and twisted as her A Mercy was expansive, remote and mangled (in oh so many beautiful ways). Her handling of the surreal adds an otherworldly gravity to an otherwise modern tract. Just as David Lynch displays the symptoms of real psychological maladies in his films without ever naming or diagnosing them, Morrison weaves in a hallucinatory side-issue where Bride feels (and sees) her body regressing back to that of a little girl – a bizarre kind of body dysmorphia formed by her past emotional trauma and career in the beauty industry.
When Bride’s body literally becomes trapped under her mangled car after careening off a backwoods road, Morrison gives us a Bride’s eye view of her existential crash become physical: “The piece of sky she could glimpse was a dark carpet of gleaming knives pointing at her and aching to be released.” (p. 83).
Though arguably the least flowery of her tomes (which may be a symptom of its contemporary setting), Morrison still finds ways to weave in those classic Morrisonian shots of pure literary genius. Take for instance Booker’s recollection of the last time he saw his brother, Adam:
“…he was skateboarding down the sidewalk in twilight, his yellow T-shirt fluorescent under the Northern Ash trees. It was early September and nothing anywhere had begun to die. Maple leaves behaved as though their green was immortal. Ash trees were still climbing towards a cloudless sky. The sun began turning aggressively alive in the process of setting. Down the sidewalk between towering trees Adam floated, a spot of gold moving down a shadowy tunnel toward the mouth of a living sun.” (p. 115).
Try and recreate that, Mr. Daniels.
By the end of the novel, Morrison’s characters begin speaking to each other in wisdom-fueled platitudes, more as vehicles for ideas than real people, but the author wisely brings it all back to Sweetness, who coolly reminds the reader these damn kids don’t know a damn thing…so god bless and good luck.
For all of its child-abuse clichés and rehashing of themes, God Help the Child, much like Bride, is a living thing of dark, troubling, mysterious beauty, marred both by Sweetness and Spite.
Written by David H. Schleicher
Side Note – My girlfriend and I had the pleasure of seeing Toni Morrison speak and sign books at the Free Library of Philadelphia on the evening of April 29th, 2015. Though recently taken to a wheel-chair, the 80-something literary giant was still fully engaged and totally captivating, her soft spoken-therapeutic voice in beautiful battle with the heavy topics she so eloquently opines on. Don’t even get her started on recent events in Baltimore…
Check out my past musings on other Toni Morrison novels:
Check out Joanna’s thoughts: