July 12, 2015

Toni Morrison's God Help the Child Review


On Sunday, after the 4th of July holiday, I spent most of my day lounging around and sleeping. Needless to say, I was very well rested by nightfall and could not go to sleep. I spent a lot of time on social media until it came to me that I should've been spending my valuable doing something productive. On my coffee table there's a small stack of books, all except one I'd already read so I decided to finally delve into it as I had been promising myself for months.

I checked out Toni Morrison's latest novel God Help the Child from the library shortly after it's April release date. I believe with any of Morrison's novels, you kind of have to take a breath before getting into it. Based on her prestige alone the expectations are always high and the anticipation of deep reading can sometimes feel overwhelming, which is why I think I put this novel on the back burner. Also, the fact that I am a career procrastinator may have something to do with it. Anyway, the novel is short (approx. 178 pages) and a pretty quick read. I am a slow reader and it took a little less than 4 hours for me to get through it all. In general, I enjoyed the ride that the novel took me on. It was very interesting and touched on many different topics including: colorism, family relationships, friendships, child abuse, sexuality, and grief.

Please note: If you have not read the novel and would not like to read spoilers, I suggest you read the novel first and then come back. If you don't mind spoilers, let's get into it.

The novel is set during the present-day and revolves around Lula Ann Bridewell better known as simply "Bride". She's a 20-something year old business woman and success story with some deeply rooted personal issues. There's also her mother Sweetness, who scars from Bride from birth and her former lover Booker, whose abrupt departure takes her on an adventure. Bride was born very dark skinned, so dark-skinned that it scared her light-skinned mother. Sweetness was so ashamed of her daughter's color that she was emotionally detached from her and made Bride call her 'Sweetness' instead of 'mother'. She is especially hard on Bride because she believes toughness will prepare her for the difficult life she will face as a dark-skinned black woman. She shows no emotions, does not nurture or coddle her at all which affects her quite a bit, more than Bride herself realizes I would argue. Then there's:

Booker - The man who Bride loves and goes on a journey to find. Bride doesn't speak very much about him because she doesn't know much about him. Throughout their relationship she leaned on him and opened herself up to him, while he closed himself from her. He didn't tell her much about his past and she did not ask. Later on the novel we learn more about Booker, and I would have to say learning about Booker was my favorite part of the story. The narrator tells us about his close knit family and how it all fell apart for him and his family after the death of his older brother Adam. Adam was sexually assaulted and abused almost beyond recognition when his body was found. The family tries to heal slowly and move on with their lives but Booker cannot. He wants to remember Adam and wants to keep him close. His aunt, Queen, tells him to hold on to his brother as long as he needs to and he holds on for years. The fact that he has latched on to his brother has caused detachment and commitment issues and also puts a strain on his relationship with his family.

Brooklyn - She's Bride's best friend and co-worker. She's a white woman, around the same age as Bride and has dreadlocks. Bride considers her to be a great friend and she says it repeatedly. But the reader sees a different side of Brooklyn, the real Brooklyn. She calls Bride a liar, whiny, and even attempts to sleep with Booker. Although she is pretty two-faced, I liked her and I'll tell you why later.

Rain - Rain is a little girl that Bride meets on her journey to find Booker. As she is driving to Whiskey, California (the last known address for Booker) she gets into a single car accident and is saved by Rain and her family. Rain is a unique child, and the family that she lives with is not her biological family. She and Bride form a bond to each other after they discuss Rain's troubled life. She was thrown out by her mother who made her provide sexual services to older men. After their conversation, they are confronted by a group of boys, one of which shoots at them. Bride covers Rain to protect her, taking the bullet that was meant for her. Rain is amazed by the act of protection and nurturing, something she had never experienced before.

Sofia - When Bride was a child there was a molestation scandal at her elementary school regarding teachers at her school. Bride was called upon to testify in court against one of the teachers who she said abused her. When the case went to trial Bride pointed to Sofia, and told the court that she sexually abused her. She spent 15 years in jail for the crime and once she was free, Bride met her at her hotel with $5,000 and other gifts to make amends. She had been saving the money for a very long time, which disturbed Booker. Why save money to help the woman who sexually abused her as a child? Once Bride explains who she is and why she is there at the hotel, Sofia becomes furious and beats her, almost to death. It is revealed later on in the novel that Bride lied about being abused by Sofia because she wanted to make Sweetness proud.

Now, here's what I liked about the novel:
I enjoyed the brevity of the novel very much. There were a couple spots where I wanted a little more but overall I liked that it was brief and focused.

I enjoyed the different points of view. Each character narrated a piece of the story and there was an unknown narrator as well. In real life we can't see inside of each other's heads, we don't know what people are thinking, but that's the beauty of fiction, you get to see so much more.

I thought the topics about friendship, family relationships, and grief were spot on. The relationship between Brooklyn and Bride really highlighted the relativity of friendship. Bride thought she could trust her friend and repeatedly called her a great friend. Brooklyn obviously did not like Bride, I think in part she was jealous but also she was just being opportunistic. She wanted her spot at the cosmetics company and played the role to get the part.

I liked the touch on the issue of colorism because as a dark-skinned black woman, I can empathize with Bride. However, I don't think it was explored enough and I believe white readers (or anyone who doesn't understand colorism) would not understand the point. Besides the fact that she was stared at all the time, where was the struggle? She was successful, well off, had lovers, how did it really affect her? Also on the same note, white color is an important aspect of the novel, it seems that Morrison wanted to focus on motherhood and grief more than colorism.

All of the characters in the story had an issue with their families. Bride's mother was detached and mean, Booker's family didn't try to understand him, Rain's mother sold her, and Sofia's mother was overbearing and overly strict. I loved that it showed how different families affect different people and that there aren't any perfect families. There are no perfect mothers, no matter how hard you try. Even if you are the perfect mother, sometimes outside forces can change you or your child(ren). It's unavoidable.

What I didn't like about the novel:
I did not like Bride as the main character. Towards the end, I was tired of her. I thought she was whiny, self-centered, and way too naive. She was the 'woe is me' character. I'm not sure if Morrison represented her as a stereotypical millennial on purpose, but gosh she was annoying! I liked Brooklyn because I agreed with her critiques of Bride and her behavior. Booker was my favorite character because he was truly interesting and I would've loved it if he were the main character. He was educated, smart, and had real goals and aspirations. I would've enjoyed a more developed Booker. But the characterization of Bride was a direct effect of her childhood. She didn't get attention or love at home so to make up for it she needed to whine to get attention, she always wanted the spotlight to be on her. This is such a common symptom of neglect. It's actually quite brilliant the way Morrison incorporates it without blatantly saying it, but still she was annoying.

This novel was supposed to be set during the present day, but it didn't feel as such. As a person who loves historical fiction and fiction set in past times, I enjoyed it but I'm not sure if it will appeal to the contemporary reader. I do believe that the story is realistic, but it feels as if it's set in the 1970's. It just feels dated in my opinion. I wouldn't recommend this novel to a friend who only reads contemporary novels. I was talking to a friend about the novel before it was released and we were talking about the fact that it's Morrison's first novel set in the present day. I argued that maybe Morrison had never written a novel set in the present because maybe she felt disconnected with this modern generation. I think it's a struggle for most older people to find their footing in the modern world. No offense to anyone who's older, but I think it's quite true. I think Ms. Morrison is probably a snazzy woman who is up-to-date and with the times, but it's still hard to write in a way to capture the modern reader. But I enjoyed it.

The amount of childhood sexual abuse was pretty depressing, but it's a cold hard fact that many children are sexually abused. Way more than we could ever know. It's very realistic, but difficult to think about.

Lastly, I think the novel ended too suddenly. The novel is very short, so of course it's not overly drawn out but there was a nice pace to it. I felt as if the pacing sped up in the last part (there are 4 parts) and went just a little too fast. I could sum it up in just a few words: Booker and Bride had a fight, they made up, Queen died, Bride told Booker she was pregnant. The end. I think there needed to be a little bit more there. After the accident that killed Queen, I think there should've been a few pages more about how Bride and Booker rekindled their relationship. Overall, I think the explanation of their relationship was lacking. I didn't fully understand the "fire" between them. The only thing that was well explained was their amazing sex life (go ahead Toni!). Bride even changes physically due to the fact that Booker left her...Maybe the sex was that great.

I thought the novel was really a nice read and I want to read it again, but I have to turn it in since it is a library book. Once I can afford it, it's definitely going to be a part of my collection. I think I want to write an academic critical analysis on it, there is a lot to analyze! Morrison's son Slade passed away a few years ago, and I believe this novel is personal to her. She rarely speaks about his death and the cause of death is still unknown to the public. In an interview with Charlie Rose, she talked about her son's passing, vaguely, but at least she addressed it. Grief and motherhood are major parts of the story. I can imagine Morrison feeling guilt, even if the cause of death had nothing to do with her, as a mother you feel as if it's your job to protect. Even when it's not your fault, you feel like you failed. My mother told me that once. Booker seemed to come from a good family, but the death of his brother changed him, an indirect source changed him. It was something even a good family couldn't prevent. What about children who have been sexually abused by trusted people? How could you know? How can you protect your child from something you never saw coming? A child is not only influenced by his family, there are many factors but still the mother always seems to be the blame. Motherhood is full of so many emotions, so many responsibilities, it's a feeling that I can't describe, I'm not a mother. What I do know is that there aren't any books, manuals, everyone wants to be the perfect mother, the perfect family. People with and without children have their ideas, their advice, but what do we know? I can only imagine.

What are your thoughts and opinions on God Help the Child? Did you enjoy it? Why or why not?