Sarah Churchwell

Snow White or black beauty?

Toni Morrison’s God Help the Child offers disappointingly flimsy answers to some seriously important questions, says Sarah Churchwell

God Help the Child, Toni Morrison’s 11th novel, hearkens back to two of her earliest. Like The Bluest Eye, it is a story of internalised racism and paedophilia; like Tar Baby it is a fable about sexual and racial autonomy in the form of a love story between a beautiful, vain woman and a man who thinks she has lost her moral compass. But unlike those earlier efforts, Morrison’s latest book offers only the most inconsequential answers to questions of grave consequence. Her abiding interest has always been self-possession and self-recovery, an especially charged problem for black people in a racist culture; but this novel reads like a précis of those themes, in which conviction substitutes for complexity — a colouring book that no one bothered to colour in.

The flimsy story offers an inversion of Snow White as a fable about child abuse: Lula Ann Bridewell is rejected as a baby by her mother, Sweetness, because of her jet-black skin. ‘I wished she hadn’t been born with that terrible colour.’ Sweetness thinks. ‘I even thought of giving her away to an orphanage someplace.’ This horror of blackness is shared by ‘friends or strangers’, who ‘would lean down and peek in to say something nice and then give a start or jump back’ from the baby, a response that seems a trifle uncommon.

Sweetness appears to inhabit the first half of the 20th century: her racial self-hatred is uncontaminated by any concept of racial pride, while she speaks of being ‘coloured’ and ‘high yellow’.But her daughter becomes an executive who designs cosmetics for women of colour, drinks Pinot Grigio, and listens ironically to Whitney Houston, so she inhabits the 21st century. Maybe this is supposed to be part of the fairy tale, a parable about telescoping attitudes to race, but it mostly feels like Morrison wasn’t paying attention.

Lula Ann grows up to be exotically beautiful, rejects her mother in turn, changes her name to Bride — just the one name, like Madonna, which no one appears to find absurd — and helpfully sums up her life for the reader: ‘Did you ever think you’d be this hot, or this successful?’ A few pages later, we discover that Bride has been rejected by a man she doesn’t think she loves, and has a guilty secret that is telegraphed around page 15.

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