- - Thursday, April 30, 2015



By Toni Morrison

Alfred A Knopf, $24.95, 192 pages

“It’s not my fault. So you can’t blame me.” No disclaimer is more suspect than this, the first line of Toni Morrison’s new novel “God Help the Child.” It’s the mantra of Sweetness, the light-skinned black mother of a midnight-dark daughter. “She embarrassed me,” she explains. She fantasized about killing her, but decided instead to be “strict, very strict.” She avoided touching her; rarely took her out; would not let her call her Mama, and agrees that being “tough on her,” explains why she left home as a teenager. Yet she claims to have raised her right: “See how she has turned out? A rich career girl.”

Bride, for thus she has named herself, is a cosmetics company executive and is about to bring out her own You, Girl line of gold-flecked lipsticks, sparkly eye shadow and everything every girl needs for allure. Bride is beautiful: tall, dressed always in elegant white clothes that dramatize her gorgeously dark skin. She has a guy she adores, Booker. When he walks out on her saying, “You are not the woman I want,” she says, “Neither am I.”

This altercation comes at the beginning of the second section, which is narrated by Bride, so like Sweetness’s exculpation, it jolts the reader. There’s another zing at the beginning of the third section, which is narrated by Bride’s colleague, Brooklyn, who says unequivocally “She’s lying.” It’s true. Bride has said she was beaten up by a would-be rapist. In fact, she was beaten up by Sofia Huxley, newly released from the prison where she had served time as a child molester. Bride had taken Sofia money and cosmetics to help her get back on her feet.

Mysteries and ambiguities drift off and swirl around Ms. Morrison’s small group of characters. These first-person narrators are mostly too self-centered to be reliable, and perhaps only Sofia wants to tell — let alone face — the whole story of their lives. Readers working out motivations and unraveling events therefore find themselves marching briskly to the end of the novel where Sweetness, now in a care home, is still claiming her child was a burden. “A heavy one but I bore it well,” she says.

This experience of being captivated by a hard-to-put-down book will not be new to readers of Ms. Morrison’s 10 earlier novels, all of which are compulsively readable. Nor will it be new to find that she is writing about the ways in which the past slings iron chains that tie people in a stunting mortmain. Similarly, her readers will remember that she has previously written powerfully about the disaster of valuing particular kinds of physical appearance. This is central in her first novel “The Bluest Eye,” in which little Pecola believes that if only she had blue eyes she would be pretty and therefore lovable. Unlike Pecola, Bride knows she is beautiful and so does everyone around her. As a creator of cosmetics she collaborates in shaping the appearance of others. A narrow ideal of beauty is the basis of her lucrative job, and the results are not pretty.

Another theme common to “The Bluest Eye” and “God Help the Child” is the sexual abuse of children. Described in the blazing words that Ms. Morrison has always had at her command, it returns in several episodes in this latest novel. Indeed, its prevalence suggests thematic business rather than plot development. Together with the musing on the shaping hand of historical and familial influences, the focus on traumatic childhood experiences raises hard questions about how history and expectations pass from generation to generation.

“God Help the Child” thus has much to give its readers, not least the pleasure of Toni Morrison’s muscular prose and its dance-like mix of narrators. The characterization of Bride also intrigues. She has the sort of celebrity glitz that encourages easy admiration, yet her naivete at times verges on the delusional; certainly it’s self-destructive.

With all this, “God Help the Child” lacks the sheer impact of many of Ms. Morrison’s earlier works, and at times seems loose in the sense that more information would be good — about Bride’s career, for example, and about why she doesn’t discover more about Booker earlier on. In the revelatory aftermath of her beating she searches for him, all the while losing physical characteristics of womanhood. This venture into magical realism, or more straightforwardly symbolism, is poorly integrated into the gritty world of the novel, and so it’s unconvincing.

“God Help the Child” is not then a punchy heavyweight novel like those that have won Toni Morrison so many prizes, including the Nobel. It’s an admirable smaller tale with tricky ambiguities that raise challenging ruminations rather than awe — yet for sure it’s one of this year’s don’t-miss novels.

Claire Hopley is a writer and editor in Amherst, Mass.

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