I have been eagerly awaiting Toni Morrison’s new novel, God Help the Child, for months. I re-read Jazz over the winter and read a short story excerpt in the New Yorker which whet my appetite even more. I read the reviews. I ignored them. I thought I would be the one to find the familiar in something new. Or if I didn’t, I would be okay with the change, accepting that people change and evolve in their writing just as much as in their lives. Sadly, I did not succeed in either.
The chapters of God Help the Child are told from the perspective of different character, as we learn the story of Sweetness, her too-dark daughter Lula Ann, aka Bride, and the people in Bride’s life.
God Help the Child has a contemporary setting, something that I have not encountered from Ms. Morrison before, so I expected it to feel a little different, but at times you could have told me I was reading “chick lit” and I would have believed you. Bride’s friendship with Brooklyn is particularly vapid and the chapter that began with their dinner of mahi mahi felt out of place. People have critiqued the overuse of abuse, particularly sexual abuse, in the novel, but that was the least of my concerns. Maybe as a social worker who works with many clients (children) who have been exposed to trauma, I don’t find it abnormal that “everyone” has been touched by abuse, especially among a subset of people. I don’t believe Ms. Morrison is insinuating that everyone in the world is abused, but that the abused often abuse others or they seek out and find other abused people for understanding, as Booker does with Bride. I did not find Ms. Morrison’s descriptions vulgar or sensational. Abuse is a theme she revisits and I think it is society that underestimates the true extent of the pervasive nature of abuse.
What I struggled with the most was the flatness of the characters and the simplicity of the language. I have come to expect florid language and three-dimensional characters from Ms. Morrison, so I was disappointed that these characters felt like a group you would find on a Bravo “reality” show. There were moments when Ms. Morrison came shining through and I was relieved to be inspired by gorgeous descriptions, but as quickly as the light came through, it was gone again.
I had the opportunity to hear Ms. Morrison read from God Help the Child followed by an interview at the Philadelphia Free Library a weeks ago. She was lovely and charming and witty. She spoke of there being two of her — Toni Morrison who goes on the road and does interviews and Chloe Wofford who sits at home and writes. I wonder if the roles were confused in this latest novel and Ms. Morrison wrote and it was Chloe who came out. And maybe that is okay, Ms. Morrison is 84 years old and at this point she has given us so many beautiful novels and pushed us beyond our comfort zones. Maybe it is I who did not like being pushed out of the comfort zone of what I have come to expect from one of Ms. Morrison’s novels.