Author: Toni Morrison
Published: April 21, 2015
Rating: 3.5 STARS
Adult Fiction | 178 pages | Published by Knopf
This review was previously featured in Emily’s blog at Emily Read Everything. It was my very first guest post, which was very exciting and I want to thank her for the opportunity. If anyone else is interested in having me as a guest poster/reviewer, just let me know!
God Help the Child opens explosively with writing that showcases how easily Toni Morrison is able to transition into the 21st century. The first two chapters are told from the perspectives of two of the novel’s most important characters, Sweetness and Bride. These two women are mother and daughter, and their complex, unsavory relationship is expertly depicted by Morrison in her typical evocative and incisive language. Unfortunately, the promise of a grand and significant novel that we may have expected after such thrilling opening is not fully realized by story’s end.
We come to know “Sweetness” by that name because she was ashamed of her daughter’s deep blue-black skin and dreaded the day Lula Ann (aka Bride) would call her “mother” or “Mama” in public. Sweetness distanced herself from her daughter the moment she was born, claiming something was “really wrong” because she was “so black it scared me.” This abhorrent attitude never lets up and ultimately warps Bride’s understanding of love and relationships during her childhood. It left her so hungry for affection that she would make mistakes deliberately and used to “pray she would slap my face or spank me just to feel her touch.” She was so desperate for her mother’s approval, in fact, that it drove Bride to accuse an innocent woman of a horrendous crime that left her imprisoned for fifteen years.
Bride eventually recognized her self-worth and left her mother as soon as she turned eighteen and never looked back. Unfortunately, her formative years had been poisoned by her mother’s rejection. Bride actively fights that fear of rejection every day of her life and has emerged the victor most of her adult life. This is evident in her success in both business and sexual conquests — but the moment her most recent lover, Booker, rejects her, her entire world begins to crumble and the rest of the narrative unfolds.
To reiterate, after such a stirring and exhilarating start, I could not help but feel disappointed in how the rest of the novel developed. There are some interesting developments, event hints of magical realism, but the characters and setting fall flat in the end or don’t reach of their full potential.
I attempted to let God Help the Child stand on its own merit, separate from Toni Morrison the artist and her status as a literary figure. When I do so, I am left wanting. Only Bride is a fully developed character, the rest of the cast remains mysterious, their complexities unknown. Some are even gratuitous filler. Moreover, the language can be sparse at times and the setting is often vague and unimaginative. With a modern day setting, Morrison could have done so much to make God Help the Child a fully realized work of fiction to rival her past work. The potential was there, the subject matter was powerful and relevant but the end result was merely satisfactory, especially under the shadow of Morrison’s previous masterpieces.