Much like 2012’s “Home,” Toni Morrison’s new novel, “God Help the Child,” is a slim, modest work that still manages to pack an emotional wallop. Gone are the literary pyrotechnics that dazzled readers in classics like “Song of Solomon” and “Beloved.” At 84, there is a new urgency to Morrison’s work, a desire to tell the story itself, without embellishment or ornamentation. Over the course of a literary career that has spanned 45 years, Morrison, the undisputed interpreter of the American black experience, takes an unflinching look at the damage done by racism and color-consciousness in her latest novel.
Indeed, color-consciousness and its twin, internalized racism, are what bedevil Sweetness, a light-skinned woman who shuns her black-as-night daughter, Bride. But by the time Bride comes of age in the 1990s, her shade of skin color is the rage, and she leverages it to become the wildly successful manager of a cosmetic company.
There are many children in “God Help the Child,” and they all suffer from some form of abuse — Bride, rejected by her mother because of her skin tone; Rain, an almost feral child who is prostituted by her mother; and an anonymous little boy whose rape Bride witnesses as a child and is unable to stop. In some ways, this work is reminiscent of Morrison’s debut novel, “The Bluest Eye.” In that novel, too, children bear the brunt of all of society’s illnesses, the truest victims of poverty and racial prejudice.
There are other nods to previous works, also, most notably the similarities between Bride and Booker, the lover who dumps her after saying, “You not the woman I want,” and Jadine and Son, in “Tar Baby.” Like Jadine, Bride is shallow, emotionally stunted, and enamored of the glitzy professional world she lives and works in; like Son, Booker is unemployed, unable to function in the real world, but grounded and in touch with his ancestral roots. But the sizzle, the wit, and ideological battles that made Jadine and Son such a compelling couple, are more subdued here.
There is a slightly desultory effect to “God Help the Child,” with multiple stories being told, such as the one about Sofia, the elementary teacher whom Bride falsely accuses of child abuse as a way of currying favor with Sweetness. Bride apologizes to the woman when she’s released from prison years later but soon after, Sofia simply disappears from the story. As does Rain, the wild child. Rather than being full-blooded characters, they seem to exist simply to aid Bride in her journey toward self-forgiveness and finding Booker.
Many novels in the Morrison canon have employed magical realism, and there are elements of this in “God Help the Child.” After Booker rejects Bride, her body begins to revert to its pre-pubescent stage. Her breasts flatten, and she loses her body hair. But despite such gestures, this is a novel rooted in the real world of violence, prejudice, and abuse.
Indeed, the true magical moments in the novel arise when Morrison hits her stride, such as in this quiet but trenchant observation of an old couple walking in the park: “The couple moves carefully, as though in a dream. Steps matching, looking straight ahead like people called to a spaceship where a door will slide open and a tongue of red carpet rolls out.”
Thrity Umrigar is the author of six novels, including, most recently, “The Story Hour.’’ She lives in Cleveland.