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God Help the Child: A novel
Alfred A. Knopf, 2015
192 pp., $24.95
A Handsaw Wrapped in Felt
In the first and longest part of Toni Morrison's new novel, God Help the Child, four women take turns narrating. Since the novel tasks each of them with relating some present dysfunction or past trauma (or both), they prove an uneasy quartet. Three of the four, moreover, know each other either not at all or solely by reputation. Which means that the woman at the center of this loose affiliation—she calls herself Bride—is all that holds Part 1 of this book together.
So let's begin with Bride. Bride is in her early twenties, and she comes across as savvy but trite. Take, for instance, the fact that she follows the advice of her " 'total person' designer" to the letter and wears, always, white or some variant thereof ("ivory, oyster, … snow, … ecru, Champagne, ghost, [or] bone"), thereby flaunting her very dark skin. Then again, its superficiality notwithstanding, this wardrobe works wonders for Bride: she grows into a confidence that she begins by feigning; she bewitches men; and she earns a chance to launch her own line of make-up, "YOU, GIRL: Cosmetics for Your Personal Millennium."
Indeed, just before God Help the Child begins, Bride—what with her professional cachet and a lover who calls her his girl—feels as close to content as she ever has. Or, to be more precise, she feels as content as she did at eight years old, when her mother held her hand—a gesture out of keeping with every known precedent—on their together walking out of a courtroom where the little girl testified against a teacher accused of pedophilia.
And this mother? To start, she does not christen her daughter "Bride." She christens her Lula Ann Bridewell. Immediately afterward, she also re-christens her "high yellow" self "Sweetness," not wanting this baby who "turned blue-black right before [her] eyes" to claim her as "Mama" or "Mother" ...