Tuesday, April 28, 2015

book review: God Help the Child by Toni Morrison

The backstory: Toni Morrison won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993.

The basics: God Help the Child is the story of Bride, a blue-black-skinned woman whose mother hated her skin color. Despite this tension, Bride grew up to be a confident, successful woman. Through Bride and those associated with her, Morrison tells stories of the long-reaching impacts of love and abuse in childhood.

My thoughts: I spent much of my time reading this novel thinking "If I didn't know Toni Morrison wrote this novel, I would never guess" and "I don't know what to think about this novel, but there's something odd or weird about it, particularity the magical realism." ...That changed once Booker began narrating. Suddenly, Morrison was back, and the novel really came alive for me with sharp-witted observations: "All he did from freshman year through sophomore was react--sneer, laugh, dismiss, find fault, demean--a young man's version of critical thinking."

As expected there was lush, beautiful language throughout, but I couldn't get a sense of what kind of novel Morrison was trying to write. Often it felt like a novel of ideas. The themes of child abuse and love turned up in similar and different forms frequently. In this sense, it felt heavy-handed. I found Bride's narration disjointed; she didn't strike me as an actual person. Aside from Booker, the characters felt like vehicles with which to advance Morrison's ideas. Thus, the novel, despite its moments of brilliance and strong writing, felt forced. It veered more toward fable than realistic contemporary fiction. I struggled with the moments of magical realism, as I felt they were intended to be more symbolic than realistic, yet they were written realistically.

There were odd moments of contemporary commentary too: "Black sells. It's the hottest commodity in the civilized world. White girls, even brown girls have to strip naked to get that kind of attention." and "Since real public libraries don't need or want books anymore, they send them to prisons and old-folks' homes." As a reader, I wasn't sure what to make of these passages and many others.

Favorite passage: "They will blow it, she thought. Each will cling to a sad little story of hurt and sorrow--some long-ago trouble and pain life dumped on their pure and innocent selves. And each one will rewrite that story forever, knowing the plot, guessing the theme, inventing its meaning and dismissing its origin. What waste. She knew from personal experience how hard loving was, how selfish and how easily sundered. Withholding sex or relying on it, ignoring children or devouring them, rerouting true feelings or locking them out. Youth being the excuse for that fortune-cookie love--until it wasn't, until it became pure adult stupidity."

The verdict: There are moments of brilliance and startling clarity in this novel, but too often things were uneven. Morrison makes strong points, but the characters and events read like a fable more often than not. The combination of fable, satire, magical realism, and realistic fiction muddied the narrative and distracted from the moments of brilliance.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5
Length: 192 pages
Publication date: April 21, 2015
Source: publisher

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy God Help the Child from Amazon (Kindle edition.)

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