God Help the Child

Book cover: God Help the Child by Toni MorrisonLet me just preface this by saying that I am a legit Morrison stan. (For real: I met her in New York years ago with two other Morrison stans I’d just met. We were geeking out and she laughed at us and said, “Y’all are crazy.” Best moment ever.) I was so, so, so excited when I heard that she was releasing God Help the Child, her latest novel. I pre-ordered the book months ahead of time. I love her. She kind of reminds me of my grandma.

So I feel terrible for saying this, but y’all: this book is a hot mess.

God Help the Child is about childhood trauma and how it can shape a person’s life. It’s told from different perspectives, but at the center of it all is a woman named Bride. She’s been paying for the sin of being born with blue-black skin her entire life: both of her parents have lighter skin, and Bride’s father left shortly after Bride was born, convinced his wife had cheated on him. Her mother resented her and always treated her harshly, trying to toughen Bride up for a world that was sure to be unkind to her. (In the book’s opening, her mother even admits, “I even thought of giving her away to an orphanage someplace.”) Bride grew up desperately wanting her mother’s love, and although she’s now a successful, beautiful woman who has found a way to use her skin color to her advantage, she’s haunted by something she did as a child in her need for her mother’s affection.

So far so good, but the book jumps the rails when Bride does. Dumped by her boyfriend, Booker, Bride completely loses it. The connection she and Booker had had was unlike any other she’d every experienced, but one day, he just leaves her. In an inexplicable, kinda sorta but not really magical realism twist, Bride’s body starts to regress back towards childhood: she suddenly loses all of her pubic hair.

This successful business woman then gets into her luxury vehicle and goes in search of him in the middle of the night, accidentally crashing her car in rural nowhere. She’s rescued by a family living in abject poverty; they use outhouses and don’t have electricity or running water. The little girl of the family, Rain, turns technically doesn’t belong to the couple: they rescued — i.e. kidnapped — her years ago from a life of extreme abuse (her name is Rain because they found her in the rain). Since there’s no cell phone signal, Bride has to stay with them for over a month while her broken ankle heals; in the early days of her injury, she must be tended to and bathed like a child. Her body continues to devolve: she suddenly has no breasts, a fact that makes her cry like a baby. Meanwhile, Bride has dropped off the face of the Earth and no one seems very alarmed.

Like…what?

The book’s only shining moment is Booker’s chapter. He’s the only character who feels fully fleshed out. His own childhood trauma fuels his anger and affects all of his adult relationships: his older brother, just a boy at the time, was kidnapped and murdered by a serial killer/pedophile, and in Booker’s eyes, everyone’s response to the tragedy — including his own family’s — had been inadequate. The chapter is devastating and beautifully composed.

The rest of the book, to my chagrin, felt contrived and terribly uneven: everyone has an extreme story of trauma or knows someone who does, and all of those traumas are bluntly sensationalist. There’s no nuance, and at times, no sense. Morrison has handled these topics before in her other books with great finesse, but this was just clunky and weird (and not good-weird). The longer I sit with it, the less I like it.

God Help the Child was released in April 2015 by Knopf.

Goodreads | Amazon
I read it as a(n): Hardcover
Source: Purchase
Pages: 192

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3 comments

  1. mdbrady

    Oh! I am so sorry! I share your admiration of Morrison and haven’t read her new one yet. But how can anyone be as good as she can be all of the time.

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