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Toni Morrison’s novels — a formidable shelf of eleven by now, as the author settles in to her mid-eighties — have all been catholicons, correctives to the canon. That strong, sensuous diction — always hers even when it is also a character’s — is merely the outer wrapping for rage, for exhortation. In this way, her work resembles the Bible, if the prophetic cadence were cut with straight talk, skewed adage, and jive. Hers has been a Protestant calling, though Morrison converted to the Church of Rome at the age of twelve.

Morrison’s other, perhaps more influential, apprenticeships were to Tolstoy and Austen. But unlike many of the famous black novelists — the men — of the generation before hers, she never regarded their olden covers as limiting. White Lit, to Morrison, was merely another option, to accept or reject alongside the African fables and trickster lore she was raised with; no life so chafes against the character arcs of the European novel as that of a black woman. Tolstoy’s and Austen’s characters were after closure: marriage. But the desires of the Gullah flying men (who inform Song of Solomon) and Br’er Rabbit (who informs Tar Baby) are ambiguous, open-ended. It was Morrison’s task to redeem those magical figures from their perversion by the Uncles (Tom and Remus) and even from the techniques of Ralph Ellison, whose every folksy snippet is kept out of the flesh of his book and remanded to dialogue. Morrison’s characters — Sethe the fugitive slave in Beloved, the besieged nuns of the convent in Paradise — are doomed from the first page, and between that and the last seek grace.

LTS III, a charcoal, pastel, and marker drawing on board, by Toyin Odutola, whose work was on view last May at Jack Shainman Gallery, in New York City © The artist. Courtesy the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York City

LTS III, a charcoal, pastel, and marker drawing on board, by Toyin Odutola, whose work was on view last May at Jack Shainman Gallery, in New York City © The artist. Courtesy the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York City

Morrison’s eleventh novel, God Help the Child (Knopf, $24.95), unfolds in a funereal procession of monologues. But the oral tradition can seem buried here, if only because the setting is contemporary and the sentences teem with Diet Cokes and PlayStations. This might be Morrison’s point: familiarity — verisimilitude — has always allowed the novelist to smuggle in myth. Memory helped her do this with her own century, and research with the prior century, which haunted her. Now our reigning Nobel laureate leaves behind Jim Crow and America’s “peculiar institution” to make a book from modern life.

Or from the life of Bride, the mononym of Lula Ann Bridewell, who “dropped that dumb countryfied name as soon as [she] left high school.” Leaving her youth behind also means leaving behind the woman she called Sweetness, who never let Bride call her Mother: Bride was too black to be loved — “Midnight black, Sudanese black” — and this pigmentation enraged Sweetness’s husband, Louis. Both parents were “high yellow”; Sweetness must’ve been fucking around.

Bride is loved by her mother only once: when the seven-year-old Bride goes to court to testify against Sofia Huxley, a kindergarten teacher who might or might not have abused her. Fifteen years later, when Sofia is paroled, Bride — now a successful cosmetics designer, dressed all in vestal white and driving a Jaguar — is at the prison gate to meet her. Bride tries to give her a ride, but Sofia refuses. Bride follows Sofia’s taxi to a motel and tries handing the woman envelopes stuffed with $5,000 cash, a $3,000 Continental Airlines gift certificate, and a Louis Vuitton bag containing a promotional box of her own product, YOU, GIRL: Cosmetics for Your Personal Millennium. Sofia reacts by beating the hell out of her. Bride, badly injured, unwilling to call the cops, and unable to call her estranged boyfriend, Booker, instead calls her friend and co-worker Brooklyn, a dreadlocked white woman who comes to care for her and to parse her lies. Bride says nothing about Sofia, and explains her condition by concocting an attempted rape. If Brooklyn has her doubts, she keeps her own counsel, because while Bride recovers — with a face too battered to be useful to a makeup firm — Brooklyn manages YOU, GIRL, and rises through its ranks.

That, at least, is the mundane plot, after which Morrison ushers in the supernatural and lets her hair down, literally. While convalescing, Bride finds that she’s lost her pubic hair. Her body is changing — aging is reversed; her ear piercings fill in; her breasts go “completely flat, with only the nipples to prove it was not her back.” At the same time, she resumes her affair with Booker, who has his own regressions to deal with. The decline of his aunt Queen motivates him to revisit the murder of his brother, Adam. Queen dies, and Bride, the child-woman, becomes pregnant. Read these reversions as you will: the trappings of adult success are childish (Morrison has wonderful takes on vacationing, and on smoothies); the falsehoods of childhood become the truths of adulthood; our bodies record the slights of our minds; only the unborn and the dead can be forgiven.

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