Book review: ‘God Help the Child’

Author Toni Morrison has Pulitzer and Nobel prizes on her résumé.
Author Toni Morrison has Pulitzer and Nobel prizes on her résumé.

Toni Morrison’s latest novel is an intense journey of redemption.

Told in four parts, God Help the Child explores issues such as ambition, revenge and sexual abuse, and the trend toward allowing horrible events to shade a person’s overall outlook on life. But one of the strongest threads in the story is the color caste system that has long influenced African-American and American culture.

As a child, Bride, or “Lula Ann” as her mother named her, was rejected by light-skinned parents who couldn’t accept Bride’s “blue black” skin tone. It’s painful to read Morrison’s account of a childhood starved of all affection and the adult who emerges from this emotional desert.

While her complexion was a hindrance in childhood, as an adult, Bride is considered beautiful. Her striking features, intelligence and sense of style help her land a top job. Morrison’s narrative strips Bride of all these as the ugly events of her childhood mar Bride’s life as an adult. The idea of redemption for past sins and injustices is woven throughout.

Bride’s atonement for a child’s lie meant to garner a mother’s affection leads her on an odyssey for forgiveness and understanding. The journey is triggered when she is rejected outright by Booker, Bride’s lover of several months. Booker is emotionally stunted by the murder of his older brother, Adam, when they were children.

Adam was abducted and sexually tortured and mutilated before being killed. Morrison’s description of the horrors suffered by Adam and several other boys at the hands of a serial abuser is chilling. It calls to mind Ariel Castro’s abduction of the three girls in Cleveland.

Child sexual abuse is a strong thread in Morrison’s narrative. She takes it on from several sides. She challenges the validity of and reliance on child testimony in criminal cases. She mocks the notion that there’s a “type” of person who would molest and murder a child. And she explores the anger and perspective of a child who has been abused.

Morrison is a bestselling and award-winning author (the Nobel Prize in literature in 1993 and a Pulitzer Prize in 1998 for Beloved) who continues to be a masterful writer. Bride is the main character of the novel, but Morrison doesn’t limit the story to Bride’s point of view.

Chapters are told from the point of view of characters who at first read seem less than secondary, but whose perspective enriches the story and, in some instances, Bride’s humanity.

The book ends abruptly, but that’s not to say the ending isn’t satisfying. Instead, Morrison’s tale is compelling and could have held for at least another 100 pages. God Help the Child is a compact 192 pages.

Morrison’s writing is powerful. Every word packs a punch, and sentences and paragraphs create vivid images and situations.

God Help the Child

by Toni Morrison

Knopf, $24.95

Audiobook: Random House Audio, $30; read by the author.