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Tuesday, April 21, 2015

God Help The Child: Morrison's Dark Fairy Tale About Child Abuse

I have to be honest, I'm not quite sure what to make of Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison's new novel, God Help the Child, which is out today. As has been her trend over her last several books, this one clocks in at just under 200 pages. And as with all her novels, she creates a work that feels whole in just a short number of pages. The departure for Morrison with this novel is that it takes place in present day — the first of her novels do so.

The novel is a dark modern-day fairy tale about child abuse. It's not a difficult novel style-wise — indeed, some reviewers have called this Morrison's most accessible novel — but it's a novel that is an uncomfortable reading experience for at least two reasons.

First, it includes some unflinching depictions of sexual abuse of children — our main narrator, a beautiful woman named Bride witnessed a sexual assault as a little girl, which has scarred her for life. Her boyfriend Booker's older brother was sexually abused and killed as a child, and Booker has never recovered. Both of these factors, we eventually learn, contribute to why Booker and Bride's relationship ends right at the beginning of the novel, but we don't quite understand why until we read a bit further. (The plot itself is very straightforward. Bride's mother Sweetness has never liked her. Bride and Booker break up. Bride attempts to help a jailed woman. Bride goes searching for Booker. Some weird stuff happens. That's the gist.)

And the second reason this is an uncomfortable read is that I don't know what it all means, and that's what's most unsettling about this story for me. Yes, child abuse is horrific. Yes, love can make us whole and be redemptive (or when withheld, devastate us). And maybe that's enough to understand — especially in such a relatively short book. But there are some fantastical, fairy tale-esque elements in this novel too — and likely, you'll have to expend some mental energy figuring out what it means, how it's all connected, and what you ultimately take away from this story. It'll likely be a different interpretation for each reader. And that's okay. Fiction doesn't always have to serve up all the answers easily and neatly.

But even if you don't fully understand the story, or even much like it, you read Morrison because she's Toni Morrison. There are passages of such profundity and beauty that you realize how lucky we are that, at age 84, she's still writing. Here's one example that I particularly liked:
The piece of sky she could glimpse was a dark carpet of gleaming knives pointed at her and aching to be released.
In the end, I'm glad I read this — it won't be my favorite Morrison novel ever. But what're you gonna do, not read the new Toni Morrison? No, you're not going to not read the new Toni Morrison.

5 comments:

  1. I have been waiting for this one! I heard an interview with her on NPR yesterday-the woman is a national treasure. I may listen to the audiobook as well. I think she narrates it, and I always like to hear an author like her read their own work.

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    1. I'd love to hear her narrate this, too - you're right, she IS a national treasure.

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  2. I'm glad you posted about this one, because I wasn't sure if I was going to read it or not. I put it on my wishlist as soon as I heard about it, but after reading some reviews I took it off of the list. But I was still wondering about it. Now, I've decided that I need to read it. Thanks!

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    1. I don't think that, 50 years from now, this will be mentioned as "essential Morrison," but I do think reading her now is important, if for no other reason than cultural literacy's sake. And at only 178 pages, if you don't like it, you haven't lost much! :)

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  3. Powerful portraits in lean prose . . . . The pieces all fit together seamlessly in a story about beating back the past, confronting the present, and understanding one’s worth.

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