I went to Europe when I was 19, with a Eurail Pass and a backpack full of paperbacks I haphazardly chose from my family’s bookshelf. One of those books was Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon. I think this is the actual copy I dragged across the ocean (note the $2.75 price tag!).
I won’t tell you what year it was, but it was well before Oprah picked that book for her Book Club. I chose it because it was small and easy to carry. Little did I know that it would transport me in a way that no other book had. And the ironic thing was that I was buried in that book as Europe rushed by outside the train. My trip to the other side of the world brought me, through a book, back to America.
Honestly, I can’t remember the specifics of that novel now, and I don’t want to re-read it with new eyes. Re-reading disappoints me. But I do remember that it was such a captivating story, and the characters were so vivid and real. I lived in the book with them.
Toni Morrison is an author on a political landscape. It’s important that she is a lauded African-American writer, when major awards still rarely recognize writers of color. It’s important that she is writing about African-American characters, and African-American women in particular, at a time when books featuring African-American characters are still few and far between. But, honestly, that’s not why I picked up Song of Solomon all those years ago, and that’s not why I loved it. I loved it because it was a really, really good novel.
I imagine that one of the challenges of having such a full knapsack of celebrated books is that everything that you publish gets compared to the rest. Everyone is looking to you to put out the Next Big Thing. Morrison’s most recent book, God Help The Child, came to my nightstand with the glitter of high expectations. And, unfortunately, this was not a novel that blew me away.
Don’t get me wrong -- it is good. I imagine that it will fit nicely into a class on Toni Morrison’s work (and I took one of those in college, after my Europe trip). The story is about the legacy of pain experienced in childhood – physical, emotional, and cultural. The reader follows Bride, who, as a child, helped put an alleged child molester behind bars. But that event has a context. We learn that Bride’s mother felt deep shame over the dark tone of her child’s skin and refused to touch her (and as an adult, Bride only wears white). She grows up to be beautiful, to invent her own beauty, but the reader watches her shrink throughout the novel. Why is that happening? There are several interconnected characters and veins of trauma for the reader to explore in order to understand Bride’s history and to imagine a future for her.
This is compelling territory, but this book is like a sketch. There are the outlines of characters, a smudge of magical realism, a skeleton of a setting. I did not sink deeply into it, and it did not make me travel. It’s worth noting that this is a tiny novel – fewer than 200 pages – and I wonder what it would have been like if each character had been developed (the mother, especially) and if Morrison had filled in all the contours of the story.