Photo: Kit Perriman
I have long suspected that Toni Morrison’s novels can be paired, each one offering a different insight into a familiar (often harrowing) situation. Her latest book, God Help the Child (New York: Knopf, 2015) is no exception. Indeed, it makes a splendid companion to her first publication The Bluest Eye, as both stories focus on the aftereffects of childhood trauma, using a variety of narrative devices and a sprinkling of magical realism.
The Bluest Eye (1970) shows a young black girl’s descent into madness as a result of her ethnic inferiority complex and her father’s sexual abuse. Pecola is destroyed by her circumstances. In God Help the Child, however, the blue-black Bride is rejected by her high-yellow parents, and harshly treated by a mother trying to prepare her for the skin privileges in racist America. But instead of being crushed, Bride not only survives with great dignity, she turns her blackness into a hot commodity and becomes a successful cosmetics mogul.
But Bride feels guilty about a lie she told as an eight-year-old child that sent an innocent woman to jail. When the woman is released she tries to make amends, and at that point her carefully-shaped life begins to melt away. She confesses her perjury to her lover, a jazz musician called Booker, who promptly declares, “You not the woman I want”(8). This sends Bride into a form of arrested development where her body slowly shrinks back to its childhood state, still craving forgiveness and acceptance. And only when she has gone on a quest — been reunited with Booker — and he cries, “I love you! Love you!”(164) does she start to become whole again.
Bride has “something witchy” about her eyes (6), a clue to the fact this is a modern fairy tale. Like The Ugly Duckling, she grows from being a unattractive reject into a stunning success, and the dark child who lied and ruined an innocent life transforms into a beautiful goddess from the warmth of human love.
Like all of Morrison’s books, God Help the Child is full of poetic language, though in this sparse novella there is transcendence and a positive resolution. While not as complex as Paradise, or as poignant as Beloved, I enjoyed the story and the resilience it portrays. Childhood trauma warps and shapes the adult life – but it can be overcome!