TW: child abuse
I finished Toni Morrison’s latest book God Help the Child two weeks ago, and it’s still occupying a prominent place in my mind. Perhaps this book is an odd choice for my first “book review” on this site, as I still don’t know exactly how I feel about it.
I’ve only just discovered Toni Morrison, and I realise I’m pretty late to the party. I read an article on her in the Guardian titled Toni Morrison: ‘I’m Writing for Black People… I Don’t Have to Apologise’ and was immediately intrigued. I think the unfortunate reality is that we typically consume literature (of whatever type) which is written consciously or unconsciously for people just like ourselves. This is significant, because people so often say that they read books to learn about other people, other cultures, other periods of time.
The more I read about Morrison, the more my interest grew. She’s known as a prolific writer in the US for issues around race and racism. At the centre of her latest book God Help the Child is Bride, whose blue-black skin was the cause of fear and disgust to her light-skinned mother, but which she now—as an adult—wears with pride and which is a source of much envy and interest.
The book explores themes around blackness through the fear (and in some cases almost fetishisation) of Bride’s dark skin. As the name would suggest, it also explores childhood and parenthood. Many of the characters carry heavy burdens from extremely upsetting events experienced during childhood.
I have to admit that I found the story quite disturbing, which is why I still struggle to pinpoint exactly how I feel about it. Surely, though, that is a mark of good storytelling. Despite being uncertain about my own feelings, and despite not really “liking” any of the characters, the book is still buzzing around in my mind.
What made the book so disturbing for me was the theme of child abuse and child sexual abuse which is prevalent throughout the book. When reading, I found it difficult to stomach the fact that so many of the characters had experienced first-hand the trauma of child abuse. Now I wonder about my own reaction. Is Morrison pointing out the prevalence of this still somewhat taboo topic in today’s society? When you look into it, the statistics are shocking. Child abuse is not just something you read about on rare occasions in the headlines.
More perplexing to me was the dispassionate, matter-of-fact way in which the characters told their stories of abuse. It is gut- and heart-wrenching to even read about it, so the detached, almost blasé way of writing about child abuse (particularly sexual abuse) was difficult for me to deal with. But then, perhaps this is Morrison making another important point. Perhaps she is highlighting a survival method for abused children: to become detached, maybe even cold.
Beyond its ability to tackle dark and complex themes, one of the other impressive things about this book is that the writing is insightful and profound while still being pragmatic and accessible. Take this, for instance, from the point of view of Booker, Bride’s ex-boyfriend:
“I risk nothing. I sit on a throne and identify signs of imperfection in others. I’ve been charmed by my own intelligence and the moral positions I’ve taken, along with the insolence the accompanies them.”
This is beautiful writing, yet it doesn’t seem far-fetched or flowery. Instead, Morrison seems to find poignant ways of explaining feelings that real people would actually feel.
Such a thought-provoking book is one that deserves to be read, discussed and pondered over. My new mission for 2018: read more of Toni Morrison’s books.