Christmas is a great time for many things, not least for yielding some concentrated reading time. Unlike the last few years where my reading has been done in front of a log fire, or less romantically, under a duvet and within (literally) 3 layers of clothing, this Christmas the reading was done sometimes outside on a beach and sometimes inside lying in front of a fan trying to escape the suffocating heat.
Over the break, I read God Help the Child, by Toni Morrison and then The Green Road, by Anne Enright. Literary giants in their respective countries, the author’ pretexts for these novels couldn’t be more different. In Morrison’s book the protagonist, Bride, is ‘ebony-black and panther-like’, to the extent that her own mother can’t tolerate her: ‘It didn’t take more than an hour after they pulled her out from between my legs to realize something was wrong.
Really wrong. She was so black she scared me. Midnight Black. Sudanese black’. Meanwhile, Enright’s novel is about a white, Irish-Catholic family and the tensions and personality ticks that resurface as the family assemble for Christmas for the first time in years.
Notwithstanding the polarised starting points, both novels employ the same technique of telling their narrative from the perspectives of different characters- the mother, the daughter, the friend. They explore common themes about seeking forgiveness and redemption, and struggling with family – in particular the mother-child relationship.
Given that its central theme is about the devastation that adults can wreak on children, God Help the Child should probably have been tougher to read. In the end, the novel just didn’t make the impact than it could have. It also came to a precipitous end, without some of the plot points or characters being fully explored. However, as you’d expect from a Nobel prize winner, the story is engaging and of course, shines further light on what being black in contemporary America means.
Although potentially less interesting, The Green Road is a more satisfying read. In the first part of the book, the backstories of each of the Madigan family are introduced in a separate chapter. Some of these backstories are more compelling that others (the eldest son’s gradual acceptance of his homosexuality and experience of the gay scene in New York is the stand out) but they set the novel up for the second half where the family gather around their passive-aggressive matriarch to celebrate Christmas. The scenes depicting the heightening tensions of Christmas day will be familiar to many readers.
I’d recommend both books, although perhaps wait for God Help the Child to come out in paperback. And my conclusion about northern hemisphere versus southern hemisphere Christmas reading indulgence? In the end, if the book is good, it doesn’t matter where you are.