Toni Morrison: God Help the Child (2015)

I’m so annoyed with myself. I have three or four unread books by Toni Morrison on my piles but instead of reading those, I went and bought her latest, God Help the Child. That wouldn’t be a problem if this was a good book but it’s not. It’s so flawed, it could be a beginner’s novel. And the style? Well, when you pick a Toni Morrison novel, you expect it to be challenging. You don’t expect it to be bland mainstream, with descriptions like “the sky was baby-blue”. Honestly, what went wrong?

The book’s premise had so much promise. The blurb said it’s a book about the way parents damage their children and the repercussions this has later in their life, but somehow that’s not really what it is about. The book doesn’t really take this theme seriously. Maybe because it’s about so many other topics— race, skin color, trust, self-esteem, child abuse.

When the main character Bride is born, her mother rejects her immediately because of her black skin. Nobody in Bride’s family is this blue-black. In fact, they are so light, some of them did pass as white. Her mother, too, could, if she wanted, pass as white. Bride’s father is so shocked that he leaves her mother. He can’t imagine that two rather fair African-Americans could be the parents of such a black child. Of course, he suspects she was unfaithful.

Bride grows up as an outsider and only later, in her twenties, is she able to embrace her skin color and discover her beauty. She even learns how to underline it by wearing only white. At the age of twenty-two, she’s a successful executive at a cosmetic company, ready to launch her own beauty line. While she’s still fighting for her mother’s love, she’s also happy about her success and her beautiful lover, Booker, until the day she tells him something and he leaves her without an explanation.

The reader learns that Booker’s reaction has something to do with Bride’s idea of helping a woman who was convicted for child abuse.

I will stop here as the book basically is about why Bride does what she does and why this makes Booker flee. Both reasons are tied to the protagonists’ childhood.

For such a slim novel – under 180 pages – it has just too many themes. While some are really well done, especially all those linked to colorism, others didn’t get the depth they would have deserved. It isn’t fully explored what being rejected by her mother really meant for Bride. She does something cruel to gain her mother’s love and this affects her, but there doesn’t seem any real and deep damage. This struck me as odd.

What also struck me as odd was the number of child molesters we come across in this book. This too is such a serious problem, but it just didn’t get the careful treatment it would have deserved.

I’m really disappointed and wish I hadn’t bothered with this book. At the same time, I find colorism such an important topic, that I liked the book for that.

I’m glad this wasn’t my first Toni Morrison. It would have been my last. I’d rather read some bestseller than something that is written like a mainstream novel but saddled with heavy, carelessly treated themes. Don’t read this unless you’re a Toni Morrison fan and want to read everything she’s ever written. That said, I think she’s a terrific author and I’ll be reading more of her. Let’s just hope this was a one-off.

Have you read Toni Morrison? Which of her novels do you consider must-reads?

34 thoughts on “Toni Morrison: God Help the Child (2015)

    • I’m glad I’m not the only one who found this bad.
      Sometimes not liking a book has something to do with the read but in this case I was pretty certain it wasn’t me.

    • Don’t tell me. I have no clue why the editor let her get away with this. When I wrote beginners novel, I actually meant one of those that won’t leave the drawers. Sigh. Everything else I’ve read by her so far was more than good.

    • I was blown away by Beloved as well. I guess that will tell you something. I’m wary now. I’ve got too earlier ones and two later ones on the piles. Guess I’ll read the older ones first.

  1. I’ve never read Toni Morrison and for some reason have always been put off by her books. The title of this one alone would have made me avoid it. Weird isn’t it, how you can love an author’s books and then hit one that is a let-down.

    • The title is corny. And the way it’s used in the book . . .
      It’s disappointing. I thought she was one of those with whom one couldn’t go wrong. Either I haven’t read enough of her books or it is a one off.

      • I hope, for your reading sake, that it’s just a one off, but over the years I’ve learned that it’s a rare writer who can sustain my interest for their entire careers. Sometimes they just seem to lose it, or have nothing new to say.

        • I find the same thing, Guy, about most writers being unable to sustain the same level throughout their career (or at least unable sustain *my* interest, as you put it, which is probably fairer). I wonder if, with the big-name novelists, fame is a part of the problem. Agents and publishers will put out anything they write, just because it’s got a big name attached and is guaranteed to sell. And they’ll always find plenty of people to give respectful reviews just because of who they are. So, in other words, they’re able to keep writing and publishing books without being made aware of their flaws. If Toni Morrison were at the start of her career, she’d probably have been forced to rework this one several times, and the result may have been a much better book. Not sure. It’s an interesting question, anyway.

          Caroline, to answer your original question, I really loved Tar Baby. And my wife always says Song of Solomon is one of her favourite books by any writer. I haven’t read much of Toni Morrison’s later work, but what I have read has disappointed me. Both of those books are going back quite a long way…

          • I might not retunr to her any day soon, but I’ll keep Song of Solomon and Tar Baby in mind. I might even have the latter.
            I suppose the editor was in awe of the name of hoping for big sales anyway. Too bad.

  2. What a shame. A little like Guy, I’ve never read her and have never felt the urge to pick up one of her books. It’s funny how certain authors don’t appeal in spite of significant levels of critical and public praise. Beloved is meant to be a great book though – have you read it?

  3. I’ve only read two of her books – Beloved which I really liked and The Bluest Eye which I thought was great. But even then Toni Morrison hasn’t become a favourite of mine or someone whose books I look out for. Not sure I know why that is but I do know I won’t be adding this to any other Morrison books I do read!

  4. I have never read Toni Morrison but I have been meaning to.

    Lately I have been reading alot of short works. Sometimes they seem underdeveloped and I wish that they were longer. It sounds as if this could have worked better if it were longer.

    It is too bad that this book was a disappointment. Obviously I will not begin here.

    • I’m a hige fan of short novels and normally don’t feel like the suffer because of length but in this case, yes, longer would have been better. Nonetheless, the style wasn’t worthy of her.
      I would definitely not pick one of her shorter books. Beloved is so iconic, I’d recommend to start there. I’d love to hear what you think of her.

  5. Oh dear, it sounds like Morrison felt pressured to write something, even if it was terrible. That has to be challenging, the pressure to re-create the wonder of previous works.
    I have put off reading Morrison and am not sure why, but plan to read Beloved sometime soon.

    • I don’t know what happened. I noticed that even critics who were a bit kinder than I was felt it was flawed and mixed in too much. Too many characters that are dropped again. Too many themes.

  6. I’m so surprised – she’s such an experienced and accomplished author, it seems incredible that she’s taken such a misstep. But trying to cram those huge themes into less than 180 pages is surely impossible.

    • I felt like you. It’s just sad because some readers might be new to her and if they start with this one . . . Misstep is the perfect word for this.

  7. Sorry to know that you didn’t like the book, Caroline. I think sometimes writers have written about everything they wanted to and they no longer have any fresh perspective to offer and they start rehashing things that they have already written about and it is not of good quality. I wonder whether that has happened to Toni Morrison. I remember you not liking Siri Hustvedt’s book – I remember you saying ‘Where is Siri Hustvedt?’ 🙂 I haven’t read any book by Toni Morrison. I have The Bluest Eye with me. I hope to read that and Beloved and Song of Solomon sometime. This book looks good from your review. It looks like Morrison didn’t develop the themes well. Or maybe tried to do too many things. I didn’t know that African American families worried about skin colour! This thing never ends, does it? Thanks for this wonderful review! I, of course, won’t read this book 🙂

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