Review: Toni Morrison’s ‘God Help the Child’

God Help the Child. Toni Morrison. Knopf. 178 pages. $24.95.
God Help the Child. Toni Morrison. Knopf. 178 pages. $24.95.

In her 1970 fiction debut The Bluest Eye, Toni Morrison gave us Pecola, young, black and pregnant who, judging herself by the standard of white beauty, finds herself not just lacking but ugly. Now 45 years later, the Pulitzer Prize winner and Nobel laureate presents Bride, whose midnight black skin is her source of power and glamour.

Bride is an entrepreneur and creator of YOU, GIRL, her own line of cosmetics. At first God Help the Child feels like a satisfying revisiting of Morrison’s first novel, but beneath the makeup, Bride bears the wound of being born Lula Ann Bridewell, “a scared little black girl” rejected by her light-skinned mother.

“She was so black she scared me,” remarks the mother, who calls herself Sweetness.

Morrison, our true north, is rightly acclaimed for addressing classism, racism (what Sweetness calls “skin privileges”) and gender bias in her fiction. At the core, though, she writes about all the forces that shape and mark us — including family. Almost all the characters in God Help the Child, Morrison’s 11th novel, are in some way damaged by childhood. Bride’s mother rejects her. A young girl called Rain is abused and abandoned. Booker, Bride’s lover or perhaps ex-lover, carries within him an emotional wound of his own choosing. “What we do to children matters” is the plangent note Morrison strikes throughout.

At 84, she challenges herself, eschewing the period setting, singing prose and folkloric echoes of earlier works. Instead, the author sets the novel in the present, in narcissistic California, relying on flat, declarative narrative rather than lingering over physical detail and character. We want to know Bride, who’s as vivid, passionate, fierce and flawed as any Morrison character, from The Bluest Eye’s Pecola to Song of Solomon’s Milkman Dead to Beloved’s Sethe.

But beneath her beauty, she is emotionally sealed. As a child, so desperate was she for her mother’s love, Lula Ann told a lie that helped convict an innocent woman. Now as Bride, she uses cash and cosmetics to hide the ugly truth and to hide herself, even from Booker.

He repays her by walking out, giving no explanation beyond saying, “You not the woman I want.” And Booker is not the man Bride thought she knew because “I never asked. I never probed, nagged or asked him about his past. I left him his private life.” This is true of most of the characters in God Help the Child. Morrison keeps them — and us — at a distance.

On the eve of her makeup launch, despite her polished veneer, Bride’s “fairy-tale castle collapsed into the mud and sand.” She runs away, taking off in her Jaguar. On the surface, she is searching for Booker, but the road trip also triggers a different sort of journey, one in which Bride discovers who she is.

In an area of Northern California as remote as she is, Bride wrecks her car. She’s saved by Steve and Evelyn, a white couple living off the grid. They have no Internet, no cellphone service, no bathroom, yet they take Bride in, as they have taken in an abandoned, neglected girl they call Rain, because “that is where we found her.”

Bride is forced to stay with the family as she heals from a broken ankle and finds herself in the position of accepting “good for its own sake, love without things.”

She is nurtured and nourished by effortlessly maternal Evelyn and forges a connection with “bone white” Rain that goes deeper than skin. These pitch-perfect moments remind us how potent a writer Morrison is and how story itself taps into something primal that speaks to the children in all of us. Sadly, these scenes come too late and end too quickly, with the author rushing toward a resolution that offers a glimmering of hope but feels neither organic nor earned.

Morrison has never shied away from what she describes in The Bluest Eye as “the real terror of life.” Childhood is anything but innocent in God Help the Child and there are no fairy-tale castles. We do not read Morrison for that. We do read her for the fullness of story, and long for that here as Lula Ann longs for her mother’s love.

Ellen Kanner is a writer in Miami.