One of the great themes that threads its way through Toni Morrison’s work like a haunting melody is the hold that time past exerts over time present. In larger historical terms, it is the horror of slavery and its echoing legacy that her characters struggle with. In personal terms, it is an emotional wound or loss — and the fear of suffering such pain again — that inhibits her women and men, making them wary of the very sort of love and intimacy that might heal and complete them.
In Morrison’s slim but powerful new novel, God Help the Child, the two main characters (and some of the supporting cast, too) sustained terrible hurts in childhood. Bride, now a successful cosmetics czarina, was shunned by her cruel light-skinned mother, who was embarrassed by the blue-black color of her daughter’s skin. Bride’s boyfriend Booker was a happy little boy in a happy family until his beloved older brother, Adam, was murdered by a child molester, leaving a hole in Booker’s heart. Unable to forgive his family for trying to move on after Adam’s death, Booker has become “a leaver” who has abandoned his parents and his siblings and who will leave Bride as well, shattering her hard-won faith in the power of her own beauty and force of will.
This novel does not aspire to the grand sweep of history in Morrison’s dazzling 1987 masterpiece, Beloved, but like Home (2012), it attests to her ability to write intensely felt chamber pieces that inhabit a twilight world between fable and realism, and to convey the desperate yearnings of her characters for safety and love and belonging. The scars inflicted on Bride and Booker by their childhoods are metaphors of sorts for the calamities of history and the hold they can exert over a country’s or a people’s dreams.
It takes a while for this novel’s gears to engage. Some of the opening chapters about Bride’s flashy life as a cosmetics executive feel cartoony and formulaic: We learn that she wears nothing but white (the better to show off her “licorice skin”), that she drives a Jaguar and that she’s dated rappers and professional athletes. She also recounts a bizarre and violent encounter with a former schoolteacher named Sofia Huxley, who has just been released from prison after 15 years on charges of molesting children; Bride, who as a child had the “dumb countrified name” of Lula Ann Bridewell, was one of her accusers a decade and a half ago.
The many parallels between Bride and Booker’s lives — including childhood trauma, and direct or indirect confrontations with accused child molesters — underscore how much they share and at the same time remind the reader that God Help the Child has a musical structure reminiscent of Morrison’s 1992 novel, Jazz.
In this case, it’s a ballad about love lost and perhaps found, a ballad about fractured families and second chances. The stories of Bride and Booker are even counterpointed by the story of a homeless girl named Rain who was rescued by aging hippies, the same couple who will take care of Bride after she has a car accident on a remote country road while tracking down the missing Booker.
Running throughout all their stories are leitmotifs and images that knit their experiences together, along with some wonderfully pictorial descriptions that sparkle on the page. Talking of a drive toward town, Bride describes a road that “looks like a kindergarten drawing of light-blue, white or yellow houses with pine-green or beet-red doors sitting smugly on wide lawns” — “all that is missing is a pancake sun with ray sticks all around it.”
Because so many lives are mapped in this slender book and because so many of these characters speak to us directly in the first person, God Help the Child jumps around a lot in time and space; it is up to us to connect — or not connect
— many of the dots. The narrative also has touches of surrealism that may initially seem jarring and bizarre, but that gradually lend Bride’s story a fairy-tale-like undertow.
Although Lula Ann succeeded in transforming herself from a lonely, frightened child into the beautiful career woman who calls herself Bride (a transformation that oddly recalls that of Lulamae Barnes into Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany’s), she finds herself physically turning back into “a scared little black girl” after Booker dumps her. All her confidence evaporates as memories of her mother’s cruel lessons (to “keep her head down and not to make trouble,” to know that “her color is a cross she will always carry”) return to haunt her.
In Morrison’s weakest works, like Paradise, men could come across as sexist clichés — control freaks and hotheads, eager to make women submit to their will. Booker, in contrast, is a complex and sympathetic figure, capable of chilly Hawthorne-like detachment, but detachment that springs from a depth of feeling, and fear of vulnerability and loss. He is a more three-dimensional creation than Bride and the most compelling male character in a Morrison novel since Milkman in Song of Solomon.
As the book flies toward its conclusion, the speed bumps in its early pages quickly recede in the rearview mirror. Writing with gathering speed and assurance as the book progresses, Morrison works her narrative magic, turning the Ballad of Bride and Booker into a tale that is as forceful as it is affecting, as fierce as it is resonant.