Friday, August 7, 2015

Contemporary Fiction: God Help the Child by Toni Morrison

I feel like my reasons for choosing the latest novel by Toni Morrison for this blog don't even need to be stated. The author is already well-known for such works as The Bluest Eye, Beloved, and Song of Solomon, just to name a few. While her novels all follow the same general theme of the struggles of African-Americans, it is always interesting to see in which direction she will go. God Help the Child would prove to be yet another story by Morrison exploring the complex reality for black people in the US.

The Situation: Lula Ann Bridewell now only goes by "Bride." Despite having been born to a woman that often had a hard time even just looking at her, Bride has grown up to be successful, strong, confident, and, much to pretty much everyone's surprise, even herself, incredibly beautiful. Born with skin so dark it is described as blue-black, Bride's mother, known to her daughter as Sweetness since she could not even tolerate her dark daughter calling her "Mom," was ashamed of her daughter and could barely stand to look at her, or even touch her. Now Sweetness is incredibly proud of the daughter who grew up to use her dark skin to her advantage, proving to the world that black is indeed beautiful. Sweetness rationalized that what she did was for the best and has served her daughter well. Even though Bride hardly ever talks to her mother, Sweetness holds onto her belief that she did what she had to do for her own daughter's well-being.

The Problem: On the outside, Bride is a force. While strategically wearing all white, she struts through her life, making decisions about her make-up line and collecting sexual conquests with a confidence pretty much everyone is envious of. But all it takes is for one boyfriend to assert that she isn't the woman he wants for Bride's confidence to shatter. It also doesn't help that she is brutally rejected by someone she tried to help, someone from her past. Now Bride waivers between believing herself to be the beauty that everyone tells her she is, and questioning everything she knew about herself, and the man she loved. If that wasn't hard enough, it also seems her body is transforming her back into the little girl her mother rejected. She becomes determined to track down the man that rejected her, believing that finding him will be the solution to her problems.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a fiction novel told from the point of view of several different narrators, switching between them with each chapter. Most of the book is written from the point of view of either Bride, or a third-person narrator that keeps Bride as the center focus. But there are also chapters written from the point of view of Sweetness, Bride's mother; Brooklyn, Bride's best friend and co-worker; Sofia, the woman Bride tries to help; and Booker, the man that left her. Each viewpoint shows just how little Bride knows about other people, as well as just how little they know about her and the people around them. Everyone lies to themselves in one way or another, all while thinking they have figured everyone else out. Like many of Morrison's stories, God Help the Child has moments of what I can only think to describe as magical realism. When Bride's body first starts to change, it is nothing too alarming. Only when she realized that the holes in her ears have closed up does she see cause for concern, and that isn't the biggest change she undergoes. Morrison has the ability to include the impossible in her stories and have them come off as something that would naturally happen - almost something that the reader should have expected. And when it comes to issues of race, Morrison is once again unflinching in her descriptions about how people with darker skin were/are treated. But something I didn't expect in this book is how heavily it would deal with pedophiles and children as victims. Almost every character has dealt with the issue or witnessed something, and once again, Morrison does not hold back.

My Verdict: It's short, not exactly what I would call sweet, but certainly to the point, while serving up a good story with interesting characters the entire time. Race and skin color may be at the center, but they aren't the only things this book is about. There is also guilt, envy, grief, ignorance, love, and justice. Bride is at once a protagonist you cheer for, but also one you're not sure you would like if you met her in real life. You also kind of want to be her, but at the same time, you're really glad you're not. The ability to make one character have two conflicting natures is something I hope to one day be able to accomplish as a writer. When done well, it is incredible and makes for a story like the one we have here. I don't think fans of Morrison will be at all disappointed. The novel is quite short, coming in at under 200 pages, but I still think it says everything it needs to say. Sure, some of the characters could be explored a little more, and there are a few loose ends I wouldn't have minded having more closure on. But overall, it is worth picking up and adding to any growing Morrison collection.

Favorite Moment: Although she chose the name herself, Bride realizes how silly it sounds when she introduces herself to a new stranger. 

Favorite Character: I would pick Steve and Evelyn, who rescue Bride after she has had a bad car accident. They live the opposite kind of life from her glamorous one in the city, but they're more content than she has ever been. 

Recommended Reading: I recommend either The Bluest Eye or Beloved. The Bluest Eye has that deeply sad and heartbreaking tone to it that this book only had on occasion. And Beloved contains a lot of that magical realism I mentioned earlier where the impossible takes place, but the reader is inclined to just accept it and move along with the story. 

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