Saturday, 7 November 2015

God Help The Child by Toni Morrison


 Spare and unsparing, God Help the Child—the first novel by Toni Morrison to be set in our current moment—weaves a tale about the way the sufferings of childhood can shape, and misshape, the life of the adult.

At the centre: a young woman who calls herself Bride, whose stunning blue-black skin is only one element of her beauty, her boldness and confidence, her success in life, but which caused her light-skinned mother to deny her even the simplest forms of love. There is Booker, the man Bride loves, and loses to anger. Rain, the mysterious white child with whom she crosses paths. And finally, Bride’s mother herself, Sweetness, who takes a lifetime to come to understand that “what you do to children matters. And they might never forget.”

This is a story about Lula Ann; an African-American woman who was neglected by her lighter skinned mother, Sweetness, because she was ashamed of her. Sweetness practised tough love to prepare her daughter for the discrimination she assumed she would face. 

But years later, Lula Ann has reinvented herself as Bride, a successful regional manager for a cosmetics company. Her dark skin is considered extremely beautiful and she wears it with pride, wearing white to accentuate her skin tone. Seeking her mother’s approval, Bride had accused an innocent woman of sexual assault, landing her in jail. As an adult, we see her try to rectify this mistake with gifts.  When she angrily rejects these gifts, beating her to a pulp, Bride cannot understand why this woman is being ungrateful.

There are a few moments like this when I really didn't like Bride because she seems so insensitive. But then again, growing up feeling unloved has meant that even when she tries to form meaningful relationships with others, she’s so desensitised that she can’t.   On her journey to filling this void, we’re introduced to her lover Booker and Rain– a child abandoned at the side of the road by her mother. While they too have been emotionally scarred by abusive parents, her relationship with Booker, is toxic. Rain and Bride however, form a close friendship because they seem to understand each other. It is here that she begins to heal.

Toni Morrison could have made this a harrowing child neglect story. She doesn't, and it is surprisingly refreshing. What we actually get are glimpses into Bride’s childhood at the beginning of the book. And for the most part, we’re looking at how her mother’s rejection hasn't made her resentful but rather longing to be loved and accepted.

This inter-black prejudice against those with darker skin tones is not something I've come across in literature and it’s important to have a story that deals with an internalised form of racism. I also think the effects of child abuse were handled really well because Morrison doesn't give a two-dimensional take on child abuse victims.

That said, I was so unsatisfied by the plot. The characters just lacked substance because we were only given brief back stories and I found myself reading in-between the lines the majority of the time.
I didn't think the sub-plots were tied up very well either which was quite frustrating. But the ending is somewhat satisfying because we can see that Bride begins to understand her mother's decisions and be at peace with herself.


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