Toni Morrison brings a keen perception and lyrical voice to the veiled but lasting effects of childhood trauma.
Toni Morrison (Home), winner of a Pulitzer and a Nobel Prize in Literature, satisfies her fans with a searing, lyrical story about the power of childhood trauma.
God Help the Child centers on a woman who has left behind the “dumb countryfied name” Lula Ann to become Bride, “with nothing anybody needs to say before or after that one memorable syllable,” a successful California career woman with her own cosmetics line but who wears no makeup. Her mother was a light-skinned, “high yellow” woman dismayed by and unable to love her blue-black daughter, but Bride grows up to repossess her skin tone and every other aspect of her beauty.
From a childhood marked by rejection and terrible crimes, Bride remakes herself as an object of attraction and a financial success, but as the novel opens, she faces dual blows: her mysterious live-in boyfriend, Booker, leaves, and a prisoner is paroled with whom she shares an old bond. God Help the Child reveals these complicated paths in alternating perspectives, most frequently Bride’s first-person voice but also that of her friend Brooklyn; her mother (who taught Lula Ann to call her Sweetness, rather than Mama or anything else that would tie them too closely together); the new parolee; and a child Bride meets along the way. Eventually, after several oblique glances, Booker himself comes fully into sight, but his perspective is told only in the third person, as Bride goes looking for answers and Lula Ann threatens to reemerge.
Even Morrison’s minor characters are complex, intriguing people deserving of closer inspection, and as Bride’s journey acquires a momentum of its own, the magnetism of her troubles pulls the reader along. She suffers the coldness of both her parents, a harrowing court case, an assault, a car accident and a fire; but it is the traumas of her childhood that most torment Bride, and, as becomes apparent, the same is true for Booker. In the end, healing comes in a surprising form.
Beautifully composed in a variety of distinct voices and covering a range of family concerns, God Help the Child employs a hint of magical realism and explores issues of race and women’s lives familiar to fans of Morrison’s fiction. The story of Bride’s life and trials is sensual, both delicate and strong, poetic and heavy with sex, love and pain, exemplifying a revered author’s unfailing talent.
This review originally ran in the April 20, 2015 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.