21 April 2015

God Help the Child, by Toni Morrison

Toni Morrison's prose is spell-binding. She can do astonishing things with language; such that you not only see, smell, feel, and taste what she describes, but can somehow simultaneously relish the gorgeous combination of words that she does it with.

But this novel does not quite work. I read the entire thing today in three sittings: the bus ride to work, my lunch break, and the bus ride home, and I was riveted, because that's how good her writing is (well, and, because that's the kind of reader I am). But even as I drank in the language, I couldn't shake various little nagging thoughts, like, wait, will we never hear from that character again? or hmmm, that doesn't really seem like something this character would say, or wait, when is this supposed to be happening? There are some wonderful moments in the novel, but the pieces don't quite add up, and the story doesn't quite come together.

The pervasive theme is child abuse, and how its effects linger and (mis)shape people's lives. But we are told about these things rather than shown them. Morrison doesn't quite seem to get inside any of these characters: they all remain somewhat inchoate and unclear, a collection of features rather than a person. The story meanders as we move from perspective to perspective, and the attention is unevenly and inconsistently distributed, as if certain plot-lines were simply abandoned along the way. Others are suddenly resolved in ways that feel overly tidy and simplistic, and disappointingly typical. Although the book turns its attention to some of the ugliest parts of today's world, it can't seem to bear to plunge fully into them, and ends up stuck somewhat in the middle, not quite telling the story it sets out to find. 

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