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God Help the Child

Veneer from venerable Morrison

It’s rare these days that I wish a book were longer, but that’s what I did with Nobel laureate Toni Morrison’s latest book God Help the Child (to be published on 23 April). For the wrong reasons, unfortunately. Morrison’s writing is beautiful, as always, but this novel about child abuse felt like a thin veneer of a story. One in which I constantly wanted to scratch the surface for more information.

The protagonist, Bride, is a black woman whose mother disliked her from the moment she was born. She’s simply too black, so much so that her light-skinned father leaves, convinced that her mother has been unfaithful.

When we meet Bride, she has grown into a stunning panther-like woman with a lucrative job in a cosmetics company. But our heroine is a troubled soul. Episodes of child abuse haunt her like ghosts. Her mother, Sweetness, is anything but. Her relationships with men are superficial. Life is all about expensive cars and beautiful clothes.

As a young girl, Bride testified against her nursery school teacher, Sofia, accused of child abuse. On the day of Sofia’s parole, fifteen years later, Bride shows up with a $5000 cheque as a gift and is brutally beaten in return. Only later do we understand why.

Bride’s boyfriend Booker dumps her, she descends into depression and starts to regress physically. Her breasts and pubic hear disappear, she looses her periods and physically shrinks. She’s turning into the ‘scared little black girl’ she used to be. Strangely, no one seems to notice this except Bride herself, perhaps it’s only in her imagination? Her salvation comes in the form of a hippie couple, her exact opposite, who show her the way forward.

The problem with God Help the Child is that you’re left with so many questions. We’re constantly presented with mere contours of relationships. Why Bride is so attached to her boyfriend Booker never becomes clear, their relationship is, as she herself says, primarily sexual and superficial. Apart from the occasional anecdote, the dynamics between Sweetness and Bride are vague. We know that her mum never touches her except when she beats her, that she pushes her into a tub of cold water when she gets her period. Otherwise, details are scarce.

There are peripheral characters such as Aunt Queen, Booker’s aunt and Rain, the hippie couple’s daughter, but their appearances are so swift that they don’t necessarily help our understanding of the protagonists or the story.

Child abuse lurks in every corner of this book, pretty much everyone involved seem to have been, directly or indirectly, affected by it. Sadly, this takes some of the punch out of Morrison’s important message.

It turns out that Bride lied in her testimony to get her mother’s attention and praise. It’s a bizarre twist that not only seems far-fetched, but also somehow undermines the theme of  sexual abuse, so prevalent elsewhere in the book.

Morrison’s message is all about the devastating life-long consequences of child abuse and the vicious circle it creates. The ominous last sentence ‘Good luck and God help the child’, Sweetness comment upon hearing that Bride is pregnant, suggest that the cycle might continue. It’s hard for us to judge, we hardly know either of the parents-to-be and much less understand their relationship…

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In the end, God Help the Child, felt like a dot-to-dot drawing where half of the numbers were missing; surprising from an author of Morrison’s stature.

God Help the Child by Toni Morrison is published by Chatto & Windus, 177 pages. Available in bookshops from 23 April.