The hurtful words a child hears from a parent can cut so deeply, it reverberates across decades. For Bride, the protagonist in Nobel award-winning American writer Toni Morrison’s 11th novel, the tentacles of her mother’s disgust at her dark skin and her aversion to touching her daughter, are a ripple she can never quite escape.
Bride’s mother, Sweetness, could pass for white during a time when racial segregation in the US meant the difference between being able to live in a ‘good neighbourhood’, use the bus, and have access to public bathrooms. When the “midnight black” child, with her “too-thick lips” and “funny-colored eyes, crow-black with a blue tint, something witchy about them” arrives, Sweetness is mortified. She refuses to let the child call her mother.
As an adult, Bride (who changes her name from Lula Ann), suppresses her childhood suffering, embracing her unusual and mesmerizing looks and becoming a successful career woman. She dresses only in white to show off her skin (and perhaps to evoke the purity and love conjured up by her name). But the pain returns when a childhood lie – told to try and eke out some affection from her mother – catches up with her.
Bride is reminded of the power words have to slice through her carefully constructed armour when her lover, Booker, leaves her with the flyaway comment “You not the woman I want”. Her pride injured, Bride sets off after him, to demand the ‘real reason’ for the breakup.
The majority of the book oscillates between Bride’s story, Sweetness’ defence of her actions (though she realises that “what you do to children matters”), and Booker’s bitter tale of being haunted by the childhood murder of his brother by a paedophile serial killer. Bride knows little about her lover, describing their shallow relationship: “I never thought about that part of his life because what was important in our relationship, other than our love making and his complete understanding of me, was the fun we had”.
As she chases after Booker, Bride’s perfect body begins to change in bizarre ways: her perfect breasts disappear, her ears appear to un-pierce themselves, she loses her pubic hair. It’s as if she’s shrivelling back into her childhood self, forcing her to confront a time she’d rather forget.
Her feelings are captured in Booker’s freestyle writing, which she comes across in her search. “Trying to understand the racist malignancy only feeds it, makes it balloon-fat and lofty floating high overhead fearful of sinking to earth where a blade of grass could puncture it letting its watery feces soil the enthralled audience the way mold ruins piano keys both black and white, sharp and flat to produce a dirge of its decay”.
God Help the Child is a powerful novel about the so-called ‘sins of the father’, or rather, here, the mother. It tells a difficult, but engrossing story about race, body politics, and love. However, the sub-plots, involving Bride’s over-ambitious and calculating co-worker, and Booker’s aunt, don’t add anything meaningful. The denouement feels a bit oversimplified, too easy a way to end a book that deals with such tough and profound themes. Still, the story lingers beyond the last page, the weight of the words themselves perhaps trump the shortcomings of the plot.
“They [Booker and Bride] will blow it, she thought. Each will cling to a sad little story of hurt and sorrow – some long-ago trouble and pain life dumped on their pure and innocent selves. And each one will rewrite that story forever, knowing the plot, guessing the theme, investing its meaning and dismissing its origin. What waste. She knew from personal experience how hard loving was, how selfish and how easily sundered. Withholding sex or relying on it, ignoring children or devouring them, rerouting true feelings or locking them out. Youth being the excuse for that fortune-cookie love – until it wasn’t, until it became pure adult stupidity”.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5
God Help the Child is published locally by Penguin Random House SA.