Lionel Shriver: Toni Morrison picked the wrong subject in God Help the Child

Toni Morrison has plenty of laurels on which to rest - and this new novel isn't terrible. But given the choice, I'd read Beloved anyday.

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God Help the Child
Toni Morrison
Chatto & Windus, 192pp, £14.99

We keep a list in the back of our heads of things we are not supposed to do, such as letting slip a single discouraging word about gay marriage (which I am not doing! God forbid! Gay marriage is great!). Somewhere near the top of today’s top-ten taboos is panning a Toni Morrison novel.

Nevertheless, at 84, with a Nobel and Pulitzer under her belt, the formidable grande dame of African-American literature isn’t likely to be on the edge of her chair anguishing about the assessment of her 11th novel. If I were she, I wouldn’t read this, and the indifference that I impute is liberating.

God Help the Child isn’t a terrible book. But it isn’t especially moving, or timely, or provocative. It isn’t especially riveting, or brave, or informative about the turbulent state of American race relations. Like Hillary Clinton, the prose is “likeable enough”, but it’s not going to have you excitedly reading whole passages aloud in bed when your poor other half is trying to sleep. The story has its moments. Compared to a host of competing diversions such as dragging the wheelie bins back from the curb or bleaching the mildew on the shower caulking, this slight volume affords an agreeable few hours’ read. It just isn’t very important.

There. Doubtless I now require 24-hour police protection, as if I’d just fired Jeremy Clarkson.

Backstory: Lula Ann grew up deprived of her mother’s love because of her blue-black skin. To win her mother’s affections, at eight years old, the little girl testified in the trial of an alleged child abuser, Sofia, a teacher whom Lula Ann positively identified in court as guilty.

In adulthood, Lula Ann has renamed herself “Bride” and chooses to wear only white. The colour sets off her striking complexion, which, in a more progressive era, has transformed from bane to asset. Having established a line of cosmetics, YOU, GIRL, she is a successful entrepreneur. She lives with a studious but tortured black trumpet player called Booker, who has his own dark past regarding child abuse. Booker’s elder brother was murdered by a paedophile when the two were kids, a tragedy to which Booker has clung. This restorative sense of grievance ultimately helps to explain why Booker leaves Bride as the novel commences, with only the opaque explanation, “You not the woman.” Bride is heartbroken and forsakes her obligations at YOU, GIRL to track him down.

One of Morrison’s most effective fictional techniques in God Help the Child is the abrupt, jagged arrival of a violent incident – with no warning, mid-paragraph. When Sofia is released from prison, Bride follows the woman who we have every reason to believe violated her in childhood to a hotel room. Mysteriously, Bride is trying to give the ex-con money. Wham, Sofia flies into such a vicious rage that Bride needs surgery to mend the damage. The shock of this passage mirrors the way that violence is often unleashed on real people, with no dark, haunting cello music foreshadowing the misfortune.

Naturally, Morrison turns the odd nice phrase. Bride has “an inviting, reckless smile”. An elderly aunt accuses Booker of having allowed his brother’s murder to turn his “brain into a cadaver” and his “heart’s blood formaldehyde”. But when Bride comes up with lines such as, “I threatened his ego,” or, “When fear rules, obedience is the only survival choice,” it’s unclear whether the character has been infected by social-workese, or the author has.

In an age of racial unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, and across America, Morrison’s decision to write about child abuse, however glancingly, is disappointing. It’s too easy. With this emotive subject, generation of sympathy is effortless. In fiction, the topic is beyond trendy and bordering on passé (although in real life, alas, the practice staunchly refuses to go out of fashion). To the degree that Morrison is writing about the larger problem of how adults continually rehearse and react to the scars of childhood, how they “cling to a sad little story of hurt and sorrow – some long-ago trouble and pain life dumped on their pure and innocent selves”, the theme is
underexplored.

The same goes for what seems at first the central concern of the novel, the reversal of Bride’s skin colour from curse to point of pride. Lula Ann goes from “nigger girl” to “a deep dark beauty” whose former tormentors now “drool with envy”. But that irony constitutes the sum of the insight here. Morrison has written about the tyranny of white standards of beauty before, and this return to the subject feels merely allusive. In kind, Morrison toys with the magical realism she put to such powerful employ in Beloved: Bride loses her underarm and pubic hair, her weight drops and she suddenly has a girlishly flat chest. Then her “lovely, plump breasts” simply grow back again, without consequence. We’re plunked back in an unenchanted universe wondering, “What was that about?”

Frankly, there’s something gesturing and a bit “Oh, you know what I mean” about this book. For such a short work, it proceeds with a peculiar aimlessness, even arbitrariness, leaving the strong impression that this and that were simply made up willy-nilly and didn’t hew to an overarching purpose. A near-novella could stand to be much more taut.

Toni Morrison has plenty of laurels on which to rest. She could have put her feet up, and it’s heartening that she continues to write instead. This novel is not an embarrassment. But given a choice between God Help the Child and her earlier achievements, I’d opt to reread Beloved any day.

Lionel Shriver’s most recent novel is “Big Brother” (Borough Press)

Lionel Shriver is an author and journalist. Her most recent novel is Big Brother.

This article appears in the 17 April 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Election Special