Review: God Bless the Child by Toni Morrison

Toni Morrison

by Sabo Kpade 

Chief among the preoccupations of God Bless The Child is skin shade: a slight variation from the skin colour that is a main raw material in many of Toni Morrison’s previous works. The lens is still aimed on the same target but the focus has been narrowed.

Bride is a young woman in her early twenties. The fact that she is independent, successful and in charge of a department called YOU, GIRL – a hip cosmetic range – comes as a near miracle considering the hostility that has plagued her since birth. Born with darker skin than either of her parents, her mother Sweetness contemplated abandoning her or smothering her with a pillow. Her husband, suspecting his wife of foul play, left her. An attempt at restitution with a teacher, whom she accused of child abuse in an attempt to earn her mother’s love, results in a severe beating. We learn that her boyfriend, Booker, has deserted her with no explanation. When she sets out to find him, she is derailed by an accident and found by Rain, a disturbed child with her own history of abuse.

The narration of this series of misfortunes is passed between the various characters: Bride, her assistant Brooklyn, the accused teacher Sofia, Sweetness, Booker, and briefly by Rain. It is a device that allows deep exploration of angles that a first person narrative could only tease out. Not every voice entirely fits its character, but Morrison’s prose – full of biting dialogue and charged back stories – allows us to overlook slight inconsistencies.

Morrison’s magical realism – the combination of the naturalistic and the fantastical – has won over some readers and distanced others. After Booker leaves, Bride begins to lose bodily features that only she notices: her pubic hair, then her breasts. The eventual disappearance of her sexual organs is representative of her eroding sense of self as a woman. The usefulness of these metaphors, which neither drive the narrative forward nor retard its progress, come down to the reader’s readiness to trust in the writer’s intentions.

One has to dig deeper for the hidden meanings in Morrison’s dialogue, which can appear merely colloquial on first reading. “I’m not a bit surprised he left her like a skunk leaves a smell” – Brooklyn’s comment on Bride’s relationship with Booker – sounds, at first, throwaway. Yet meanings abound. A skunk’s scent wards off predators and causes temporary blindness, just as Booker flees from the scent of Bride’s past, while temporary blindness – along with the vanishing body parts – could well be a symptom of his desertion.

The absence of prominent white characters in Morrision’s work has been a recurring issue. She once dismissed the question on the topic in an interview: the exception she took to it has been taken as proof that the omission is conscious. The role of Rain and her family of white hippies in nursing Bride back to health after a car crash in God Bless The Child may go some way in quieting her accusers.

Yet Morrison should not feel much need to prove herself. At 84 years old and with 11 novels to her name – and showing no signs of exhaustion – she has already established herself as the conscience of America. Her voice continues to grow in importance knocking down bars raised before her while raising them even higher for those to come.

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Sabo Kpade’s stories have been published in Verdad, Glasschord, The Writer’s Room, Sable and Gertrude Press. His play Have Mercy On Liverpool Street was staged by Talawa Theatre Company. He is currently at work on his first novel Anyone’s Ghost. Sabo Kpade’s stories have been published in Verdad, Glasschord, The Writer’s Room, Sable and Gertrude Press. His play Have Mercy On Liverpool Street was staged by Talawa Theatre Company. He is currently at work on his first novel Anyone’s Ghost. His story Chibok has been short listed for the London Short Story Prize 2015. You can find him on Twitter at @Sabo_Kpade

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3 replies

  1. I just finished it, pointedly about re-reading Beloved. I found the re-occurring themes of love, both maternal and the love between couples a continuation, often in frightening ways. Mothers will do terrible things to their daughters because of the cruelty of the world, and men run away at the first sight of problems.
    I completely agree with your assessment of the strength of the prose, the first person narration, but personally I found the end weak.
    I was a bit consoled that the last words were Sweetness’, still ignorant of the catastrophe her lack of love caused 15 years ago, still thinking that what she did was right and necessary. But I didn’t like the Hollywoodesque love and pregnancy end for Bride and Booker. A baby isn’t “new hope” for troubled people to get their life back on track. It’s a recipe to repeat the horrors of the past and I didn’t see that looming over the final scene.

    Like

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