The canvas of Toni Morrison’s latest novel, God Help the Child, is not over-determined by history in the way that Beloved, her most famous novel, is, but it nevertheless explores the significance of the past in the constitution of the present in the lives of human beings, no matter of which race.
The novel begins and ends with the idea of childbirth, as a promise of the transcendence of bitter memories in the latter case and as an entrapment within a vicious cycle of repudiations and recriminations in the former. The connecting thread between these two tropes is a black woman who is blacker than most and whose life encapsulates two contradictory perceptions and self-perceptions of the African-American condition in the contemporary historical moment, i.e. “race matters” (academic-philosopher Cornel West’s phrase) and “the declining significance of race” (sociologist William Junius Wilson’s phrase).
A self-made person, she is, however, weighed down by the guilt of having provided false testimony to prosecute an alleged child-molester, Sophia Huxley. Curiously, her partner, Booker Starbern, carries his own cross, an ever undiminished rage at the crime of child-molestation of which his favourite brother, Adam, was a fatal victim.
The symmetry of the plot of the novel is defined, to a large extent, by the rift between Booker Starbern and Bride and their subsequent re-union. Interspersed between these two events are narratives which brief readers about the lives these two characters led before they met each other, their respectively bruised childhoods and the childhoods of many other children across the length and breadth of America. The violence which characterises social life in America is recorded through a relation of different episodes centring around various forms of child abuse. The wanton desecration of innocence is the leitmotif of Morrison’s novel.
Yet this by-and-large dystopic novel ends with an intimation of hope in the shape of a child to be born. A vision of renewal informs the final happy gaze of a happy couple as they look towards their future.
A child. New life. Immune to evil or illness, protected from kidnap, beatings, rape, racism, insult, hurt, self-loathing, abandonment. Error-free. All goodness. Minus wrath.
Another re-articulation of the age-old American Dream? Not quite. An almost sardonic, succinct note of caution punctuates the utopian assumption—“So they believe”—followed by the voice of experience of a much-harried senior citizen of America.
“Listen to me. You are about to find out what it takes, how the world is, how it works and how it changes when you are a parent.”