Unfinished fairy tale: Toni Morrison’s latest short novel suggestive, but incomplete

Toni Morrison has written two of the great novels of the past 40 years, “Beloved” and “Song of Solomon.” She has also won the Nobel Prize in Literature.
Toni Morrison has written two of the great novels of the past 40 years, “Beloved” and “Song of Solomon.” She has also won the Nobel Prize in Literature. Courtesy photo

“God Help the Child” by Toni Morrison (Alfred A. Knopf, 178 pages, $24.95)

Morrison, a Nobel laureate, is one of America’s great writers, and “Beloved” and “Song of Solomon” are two of the great novels of the past 40 years.

Her past two novels, however, have been shorter, almost parabolic in nature. “Home” (2012), as I wrote here in a review, seems “almost an allegory as it explores the meaning of ‘home.’”

Her new novel is similar, though it explores different themes, focusing especially on child abuse. The plot is spare, the characters are not fully drawn, and the world it depicts feels vague.

The center of the story is a woman who calls herself Bride. She is young, beautiful and has a career in the cosmetics industry. But she has come from a difficult childhood.

Her mother, Sweetness, who is lighter skinned, is shocked when Lula Ann (Bride) is born: “She was so black it scared me. Midnight black. Sudanese black.” Her father, who is also lighter skinned, doesn’t believe it’s his baby and leaves. The mother makes the child call her Sweetness instead of Mother or Mama.

Bride grows up longing to be touched. When she has her first period and soils the sheet, Sweetness slaps her. “Her shock was alleviated by the satisfaction of being touched, handled by a mother who avoided physical contact whenever possible.”

Bride is so desperate to be loved that when she is nine she lies about seeing a female teacher abuse a student. Her mother is proud of her, but the innocent woman goes to prison.

Years later, Bride tries to repay the woman and help her once she gets out of prison, but the woman won’t have it.

Although Bride’s career is doing well, the man she loves, Booker, suddenly leaves her when he hears that she’s tried to help this woman who went to prison.

Bride can’t understand why he left and eventually goes looking for him. Her search takes her to northern California, to a small town in logging country. She has a car accident and is found by a young girl, who brings a man to help. The man extricates her from the wrecked car and takes her to his home, where he and his wife live self-sufficiently, without concern about money. The couple has rescued the little girl, whom they call Rain, from a prostitute mother who shared the girl with her johns.

While Bride recuperates, she and Rain hit it off. Bride “felt a companionship that was surprisingly free of envy. Like the closeness of schoolgirls.” The two seem opposites, one an adult, one a child; Bride blue-black, Rain “bone white.” Yet they connect.

Rain is an intriguing character, and we want more of their interaction, but the narrative soon moves on.

Bride locates Booker, and we get a chapter from his perspective and learn that his older brother was killed by a child predator when he was young. Since then, Booker has remained grief-stricken and obsessed with punishing child abusers.

He’s living near his aunt, named Queen, who represents an eccentric yet wise woman, a healer.

This is Morrison’s eleventh novel, and her first not set in the past. But while much of “God Help the Child” feels contemporary, there are few clues about when it takes place, and Sweetness sounds like someone from the past.

Morrison often includes elements of magical realism in her fiction. While living with the hippie couple in California, Bride starts losing her body hair, and her breasts get smaller. She grows thinner, and her period is late. Yet no one else seems to notice these changes. It’s like we’re in a fairy tale at times.

Morrison can write lush prose, with vivid descriptions. She mentions white, sinister limousines, with “engines snoring, chauffeurs leaning against gleaming fenders.” She mentions a “pancake sun.”

At other times she offers comments, as when Bride says, “How can I take crime shows seriously where the female detectives track killers in Louboutin heels?”

At other times she slips into didacticism, as when Booker says: “Scientifically there’s no such thing as race, Bride, so racism without race is a choice. Taught, of course, by those who need it, but still a choice. Folks who practice it would be nothing without it.”

“God Help the Child” is a short novel (or a long parable) about a world that is dangerous for children. It introduces characters we’d like to get to know more, but we’re left wishing.

Gordon Houser is a writer and editor in North Newton.