Sunday 20 August 2017

Utterly delicious novel from this Nobel winner

New book tackles large themes in deft manner we've come to expect from Morrison

Toni Morrison
Toni Morrison
God Help the Child

Tanya Sweeney

In 2010, when Toni Morrison was midway through writing her novel Home, tragedy landed at her threshold. The man she collaborated with on a number of children's books, Slade Morrison, died of pancreatic cancer, aged 45. He was also her son.

Any other writer navigating the badlands of grief might be moved to meditate on the Vaseline-lensed joys and myriad rewards of parenthood. But not Morrison. Instead, her 11th novel is pockmarked with anxiety and guilt. God Help the Child opens with Sweetness giving birth to her daughter Lula Ann and realising that something is wrong. In a family of lighter-skinned folks, her newborn daughter is 'Sudanese Black'.

From this curious vantage point, the book explores the emotional fall-out of this maternal ambivalence. Sweetness insists her child call her 'Mama', while Lula Ann's father, believing himself not to be her real father, raises her at an emotional remove. In a bid for attention and affection, Lula Ann then walks headlong into a hornet's nest, and lies to put Sofia, a woman wrongly accused of child abuse, into jail. This incident shapes her, for better or worse, for years to come.

Lula Ann's skin colour is front and centre time and time again. Working for a cosmetics company designed for African-American women, the alluring, ebony-black woman, now called Bride in adult life, is adored and lusted after in equal measure. And for someone whose formative childhood experiences seem to have hinged on her skin colour, it's a curious about-turn that even she has difficulty navigating sometimes.

In searching for Sofia, and with Bride finally understanding the horrors that she has inflicted on the innocent woman, Ian McEwan's epic Atonement springs to mind.

In the course of the novel, Bride encounters others who have their own accounts of systemic trauma to hand. She meets Rain, a victim of sexual abuse, and Adam, the brother of her boyfriend Booker. Both of them are carrying their own childhoods around like millstones.

God Help The Child takes on large themes: how children handle the damage done to their souls by their parents, and how the scar tissue of the past is always just under the skin. But these themes are more than safe in Morrison's hands. Eventually, Sweetness starts to understand that "what you do to children matters. And they might never forget".

And the writing. Oh wow, the writing. Not for nothing has Morrison been garlanded with a Nobel Prize, Pulitzer and the National Book Critics Circle Award. There's always a sense of grand occasion when Morrison releases a book, and with good reason: the journey is always vivid, dazzling and rich, each paragraph a mealy morsel in its own right.

A highly personal and affecting tale that manages to be deftly political, God Help the Child is emotionally rousing and gut-wrenching.

While the book is occasionally disturbing, it's never anything other than utterly delicious. Standard Morrison fare, one might say, but then only a fool would ever describe this fare as standard.

Fiction:

God Help The Child

Toni Morrison

Chatto & Windus, hbk, £10.49, 192p,

Available with free P&P on www.kennys.ie or by calling 091 709350

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