Expressive magic with fairy tale props, very much the thing in fiction these days, is nothing new. Toni Morrison herself has conjured with the best of them, peopling her beautiful "Beloved" with the ghosts of slaves, breathing life into a house haunted by humanity's cruelest instincts. Here, though, when Lula Ann Bridewell, who renames herself Bride, reexperiences the witchery of her childhood — first her pubic hair disappears, then the holes in her earlobes, her "spectacular" breasts, and ultimately her period, transforming her back into "a scared little black girl" — there is something oddly opportunistic about it, a fortuitous marriage of a trend and the idea not quite animating this novel.
The idea? It finally occurs to Sweetness (as she insists her daughter call her, rather than, say, Mama): "What you do to children matters." To Sweetness, for whom nursing Lula Ann "was like having a pickaninny sucking my teat," this may be a legitimate revelation. After all, her life and ancestry have been one long catalog of distinctions between skin colors ("the lighter the better"), with "passing" seemingly the only way to claim a little dignity ("How else can you avoid being spit on in a drugstore, shoving elbows at the bus stop, walking in the gutter to let whites have the whole sidewalk?").
Neither her light-skinned mother or father, she says, "would let themselves drink from a 'colored only' fountain even if they were dying of thirst." But the long-term consequences of the damage done to children, like so many of the themes in this novel, reads like that — a theme, not so much experienced as outlined, with supporting material sketched in.
Lula Ann, when she comes out black — "so black she scared me. Midnight black. Sudanese black." — is promptly rejected by Sweetness, and only proves her worth by falsely (and obediently, and effectively) testifying against a teacher accused of abusing children. That for the most part is in the past, though, as the adult Lula Ann — now the hugely successful Bride, ruling a cosmetic empire — grapples with the loss of Booker, "one beautiful man." Also, "one gorgeous man." In fact, Booker's beauty seems to be his chief attribute ("imagine how we looked as a couple"), though the affair was "nothing like those double-page spreads in fashion magazines, you know, couples standing half naked in the surf, looking so fierce and downright mean, their sexuality like lightning and the sky going dark to show off the shine of their skin."
Yes, well … getting past the looks takes a lot of work, and meanwhile we learn something about Booker and his own damaged childhood, and encounter another damaged child (this one white), who finds in Bride the only person she can confide in about her awful experience.
All of this is worthy enough, the stuff of which great novels might be — and has been — made, by Morrison herself, but here it seems cursory, a slapdash admixture of plot and explanation with the occasional redeeming image or burst of inspired language. "They will blow it," Booker's Aunt Queen, a good witch if ever there was one, observes of the uneasy couple. "Each will cling to a sad little story of hurt and sorrow — some long ago trouble and pain life dumped on their pure and innocent selves. And each one will rewrite that story forever, knowing the plot, guessing the theme, inventing its meaning and dismissing its origin. What waste."
Ellen Akins (@ellenakins) is the author of four novels and a collection of stories, "World Like a Knife."