Contemporary novels seem to get longer and longer, at once in defiance to shrinking attention spans and in capitulation to the attempt to keep up with the information glut of other forms of media. Toni Morrison’s writing stands in relief to this trend, with her books rarely even reaching 300 pages. Yet her prose is so delicately chosen, so precise, that she can devote the vast majority of her slim novels to digressions and impressionistic observations. In terms of plot synopsis, God Help the Child could be distilled to two sentences, but the same could be said even of Morrison’s most towering achievements. That her latest does not rate among them is less noteworthy than the manner in which it still displays her prodigious skills.

The novel presents the points of view of several characters united by a common thread: a biracial, dark-skinned young woman who calls herself Bride. We meet Bride as a successful fashionista carving out a healthy living in New York, but her introduction is irrevocably shaded by the preceding perspective of her estranged mother, Sweetness, a fair-skinned woman who bitterly rejected her daughter for ruining her ability to pass for white. Sweetness’ preceding chapter buries a layer of ingrained insecurity into Bride’s outwardly vivacious behavior, but the bigger twist belongs to Bride for revealing that the judgmental stares and prejudiced landlords described by the mother are stories not of the Jim Crow era but the present day.

The deftness with which Morrison unpacks character and context through nothing more than chapter order succinctly demonstrates the author’s efficiency with words, but this slim volume nonetheless regularly chafes against its borders. Morrison tends to use large casts to plot independent points of experience on a graph to trace an African-American identity forged by strife, and the same is true of this book. But where a novel like Jazz conjures a multivalent, insoluble image from a wide array of joys and traumas, God Help the Child shackles its shared experiences to the subject of child abuse—something that prevents Morrison from exploring a wide variety of moods and tones. Rape and murder produce lasting traumas that shape the characters’ emotional self-awareness, which makes their recapitulation around Bride’s grief over a break-up seem particularly childish.

Bride’s relationship status marks a failed attempt to find intimacy with the host of remembered horrors without dwelling on them, yet the book finds its strongest material in pursuing that most well-worn of shock-baiting topics: the ambiguity surrounding a rape accusation. This has become the bedrock for a number of recent treatises about the dangers of public opinion, but Morrison sidesteps the reductive nature of such cheap mysteries and hectoring calls to falsely patient morality. Instead, the author uses her shocking revelations not for their twist value but as the most abhorrent manifestation of the toll that discrimination and self-neglect takes on her characters. For example, in Beloved, Sethe’s murder of her infant to prevent the baby from being taken by a slaver is disturbing enough, but it takes on added dimensions after you trace the rippled, gnarled bark of the mother’s whip-scarred back or sit with her vividly recalled fears of discovery on the run. The twist that occurs at the end of God Help the Child can be predicted in the book’s first pages, but Morrison builds to it from the time she spends reliving each character’s tribulations and chronicled micro- and macro-aggressions. She uses them to sketch out a pathos of longing and a desire to belong that denies easy explanation while providing a clearer portrait of people than the handwringing responses of other works on this topic.

Morrison’s facility with finding the profound within often-skimmed, rarely explored taboos is the novel’s greatest strength, along with the depth suggested by its ancillary observations. The author often produces some of her best writing at the margins of her worlds, those stray lines that seem to contain an entire universe outside her slender volumes. Such moments crop up here and there in the author’s latest, like the implications of Sweetness’ ex, a man who fled his black daughter rather than admit his own mixed blood even to himself; or Bride’s competitive white co-worker, who contrasts Bride’s assimilationist behavior with casual appropriations of “authenticity” like dreadlocks. Morrison does not dwell on such matters, giving them just enough words so that these wry sketches of relatable deadbeats and oblivious social climbers suggest deep connections to the vast yet barely perceptible climate of racism that still dictates American social life. They play a part just as much as the exaggerated horrors heaped upon the book’s children by parents and predators alike. The purpose of the book is clear: to brutally dispel the notion that children will make a better future without the active kindness and education of adults to produce more rounded and enlightened individuals. At last jumping to the present day for her setting, Morrison despairs to find that these children are as poorly equipped by their parents and society to effect change as she was. God Help the Child may be one of Morrison’s breeziest reads, but it’s every bit as devastating as anything else she’s ever written.

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