How much does a child’s past shape his or her life as an adult? Can he or she truly evolve past the pain or is it his or her eternal cross to bear? Toni Morrison’s eleventh novel, “God Help the Child,” is a slim, sparse fable hiding within the narrative form of a contemporary novel. Morrison, who has a gift for crafting memorable character names (Milkman Dead, Baby Suggs, Pecola Breedlove) that speak to the secrets and wounds of their souls, introduces readers to Bride, formerly known as Lula Ann. Bride is a stunning, financially-successful beauty mogul living in California. Once scorned for her “blue-black skin,” Bride is now a lightening rod in the beauty world, at the top of her game. She adopts an all-white uniform and minimal jewelry to further enhance the richness of her skin tone. She believes that “Lula Ann Bridewell is no longer available and she was never a woman.”
Bride’s mother, a light-skinned Black woman who insists on being addressed as Sweetness, is unapologetic and seemingly indifferent about the mental and emotional abuse she inflicted upon her daughter at an early age. Sweetness pleads ignorance and shifts the responsibility to an unknown force akin to destiny. Her voice literally opens the novel; she explains why Lula Ann’s birth was disarming: “It’s not my fault. So you can’t blame me. I didn’t do it and have no idea how it happened…Ain’t nobody in my family anywhere near that color. Tar is the closest I can think of yet her hair don’t go with her skin.” Sweetness isn’t a tender mother but a sour jail warden, a reluctant superior who believes that being cruel to be kind is the best type of mentorship.
When she’s able to physically escape her mother’s tyranny, the little girl named Lula Ann throws her birth name into the fire and rises as Bride. A curious choice, considering that Bride’s romantic life is much more of a shipwreck than the shiny promise of pending nuptials. When readers are first introduced to Bride, she’s in the middle of a break-up with a handsome lover, feeling small and scared. Her decision to choose this new name also reflects the lifelong impact of Bride’s maternal-bound grievances. Growing up, she was lead to believe, much like Pecola Breedlove of “The Bluest Eye,” that her dark skin was a sign of inherent wickedness, akin not to a temporary ailment but an irremovable curse. She was someone destined to be an outsider. Yet Bride defies her mother’s steel-lined predictions and becomes commodified beauty. The trait that she was made to despise transformed into a tool of money-making power and acceptance, disgust flipped into exclusive exoticism. A designer tells her, “Black sells…White girls, even brown girls have to strip naked to get that kind of attention.” Though Bride doubts this, she confesses, “True or not, it made me, remade me…Men leaped and I let myself be caught.” The bestowing of the name Bride conjures images of lily-white dresses, connotations of feminine purity, of a woman who is wanted, who is loved and lovable, the very opposite of a social pariah. Lula Ann gives way to the new identity of Bride, an identity that suggests she belongs to someone.
Yet inner peace isn’t easily achieved through a costume change. Through the narrative, the reader wonders: How do children who experience deep trauma recover, if they recover at all? Some of the characters respond with a lack of love, withholding love. Others, like Bride, carry their burdens but look for constant distractions. In his review for NPR, Saeed Jones notes, “With these daughters [of her previous works] in mind, Bride exists as a kind of avatar: What would it look like for any of these black girls to have survived their childhoods?” In the novel’s understated instance of magical realism, Bride’s emotional breakdown manifests in a sort of retrograde puberty. She begins to lose her curves and her breasts begin to shrink. The piercings in her ears begin to shut. She is devolving into a little girl, morphing into the suppressed existence of Lula Ann at an alarming rate. Bride may have been able to blossom into a fashion darling, but all those old ghosts never really left. They still live inside of her, connecting her to the pain and shame of her childhood, and the self-serving and unpredictable affections of Sweetness. Desperate for her mother’s love, Bride testifies against an innocent women who is convicted for child molestation. Bride knows what she’s doing is wrong but she doesn’t want to disappoint her mother, who is “so proud of her, we walked the streets hand in hand” because “It’s not often you see a little black girl take down some evil whites.” Sweetness is so pleased with Bride that she takes her daughter to get her ears pierced. It’s a rare show of affection, this reward from Sweetness.
Although Morrison’s novels typically use inter-familial relationships to frame the larger questions of her prose, readers familiar with the author’s works will undoubtedly compare the issues of race, identity and trauma in “God Help the Child” to her debut, “The Bluest Eye.” The two novels are different interpretations to the same questions. However, “God Help the Child” feels as though something is missing, as though the readers are never fully granted access to these characters. One of the other voices in the book happens to be Bride’s work colleague/frenemy, a dread-sporting white twenty-something woman named Brooklyn. The inclusion of Brooklyn’s voice does add another perspective on Bride’s beauty and in turn, how that beauty can be changed into a monetary and emotional transaction. But it’s another character that has been handled with a wide angle, an unresolved plot point that doesn’t need a resolution so much as it needs a steadier focus and a tighter lens. In the second half of the novel, Bride takes an impromptu road trip in order to track down Booker, the lover who fled her apartment. She gets into an accident and is rescued by a white man. The man and his family allow Bride to stay in their cabin while she recovers and her leg heals. She befriends their inquisitive child and feels that their friendship has “the closeness of schoolgirls.” Yet the time with the family feels too brief.
This can be said of Booker, who wears trauma like a crown of thorns. When his brother Adam is murdered, Booker refuses to move on or fake resilience. He says, “When he visited his and Adam’s old bedroom, the thread of disapproval he’d felt during his proposal of a memorial became a rope.” Booker’s grief and his loss make his backstory lacking when distributed throughout a short section. The novel doesn’t settle for endings tied up with perfect bows. Optimism is quickly countered by pessimism and doubt; Bride and Booker’s reconciliation isn’t promised lasting happiness. But then again, neither does life. In a lengthy profile with the New York Times, Morrison says, “What I’m interested in is writing without the gaze, without the white gaze…what interested me was the African-American experience throughout whichever time I spoke of. It was always about African-American culture and people — good, bad, indifferent, whatever — but that was, for me, the universe.”
The novel, just under two hundred pages, is a universe I wish that I could’ve stayed in a little longer, regardless of the pain, for there was still the chance of hope, love without violence, and the fullness of life.
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