Toni Morrison's fiction is usually historical in nature, which is why her latest novel, God Help The Child, is both daring and refreshing because of its contemporary setting. It centres on another vexed mother-daughter relationship, and probes the considerable damage that childhood abuse can inflict into adult life.

But first, the background

In the USA of the 1970s and 80s, a variety of hugely talented African American women were creating works of great literary merit in their respective forms, and being recognised for it. Audre Lorde was writing poetry, Ntozake Shange was writing for the theatre, Octavia Butler was writing speculative fiction, and Alice Walker was writing literary fiction.

Arguably, the novel that marked the beginning of this period, now known as the "black women's literary renaissance" was The Bluest Eye, published in 1970, written by Toni Morrison.

Morrison, who was born in Lorain, Ohio, in 1931, only started writing fiction in her late thirties, and wrote The Bluest Eye while teaching full-time and single-handedly raising two children. She would go on to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, the Pulitzer, the National Book Critics Award, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, many other accolades, and worldwide acclaim for her work.

Morrison is now 84 years old and is one of the most venerated writers in today's America. Alongside her writing of the African American experience into the literary canon is her work as a critic and a fierce public intellectual. In many ways, these roles – of novelist, critic, and activist – are intimately connected. Morrison identifies as an African American writer, speaks to and of her community, its history of slavery and continued racism, and the intersections of these experiences with class and gender.

Even as she is read by readers around the world for her portrayal of black lives in novels such as Beloved, set during and just after the Civil War, Morrison continues to speak out about the racist police and state violence on African American people that is still plaguing her country.Beloved's plot is focused on Sethe Suggs, a former slave who murders her own baby daughter rather than see her sold into slavery – and is literally haunted by the daughter. Morrison's use of African American folklore and popular culture is reflected in this haunting, and in many of her other works such as Song of Solomon and Jazz.

The new book 

The protagonist of God Help The Child is 23-year-old Bride, who is rejected by a fearful, scarred mother called Sweetness because of her blue-black colour. Herself a “high yellow”, and with a grandmother who passed for white and ignored her children, Sweetness is terrified at the thought of having brought a “midnight black” baby into the world.

She briefly considers strangling the infant, but settles for alienating her completely instead, despising her “witchy” eyes and “too-thick lips”, predicting and ultimately helping to ensure that her colour is “a cross she'll always carry.”

The girl, called Lula Ann later, is treated with the utmost coldness by Sweetness through her childhood, and is only publicly loved and acknowledged when she helps to imprison an accused pedophile. Grown up, she flees her mother and achieves what appears to be great personal and professional success as a beautiful and independent woman who runs part of a cosmetics company.

Here is Morrison's indictment of socially constructed ideals of female beauty driven by a culture of consumerism, in some ways harking back to the central concern of The Bluest Eye, but also a sophisticated riff on a contemporary version of the same problem. Bride literally remakes herself after leaving home; slowly shortening her original name, Lula Ann Bridewell, even as the company she works for changes its name to appear more modern.

This transformation into another life is seemingly complete after she meets  fashion expert Jeri, who exhorts her to use her darkness to her advantage by wearing all white. “Black is the new black,” he tells her. “Black sells. It's the hottest commodity in the civilised world.”

Morrison quickly makes it clear that surface glossiness will not save Bride. Violent rejections from two people in her life – her boyfriend Booker, and the woman she helped to imprison, Sofia Huxley – force Bride on a quest to confront their intertwined pasts.

The only element of fantasy in this complex and richly articulated novel is the transformation of Bride's body. The remade, gorgeous woman's body – prized for matching of societal standards of beauty – slowly unmakes itself into the despised, lonely little girl's figure. Pubic hair and armpit hair disappear, earlobes become un-pierced, breasts shrink and become only nipples.

The themes it explores 

A central theme of God Help The Child is childhood sexual abuse, which rears its head repeatedly through the stories of the lives populating the novel. Its compassionate probing of even the coldest and cruellest of actions involves rigorous contextualisation.

Thus, Sweetness says, “What you do to children matters”, even as she relates what it meant to be black when Bride was born, when it was for the first time illegal but still completely socially acceptable to be openly racist to African Americans. By the time Bride is an adult, this racism has taken on a much more insidious character, embodied in Bride’s only friend, Brooklyn, the white woman who wears dreadlocks and secretly desires Bride’s boyfriend and Bride’s job.

Another interlinked theme is the problematic conflation of women's empowerment with simplistic ideas of economic success. Bride's metaphor for her sex life (“...Diet Coke – deceptively sweet minus nutrition”) is slowly revealed to be true for her life in general.

Bride’s financial success is not the final frontier of her development. It is through physical debilitation, a prolonged encounter with a couple who live “off the grid”, and meeting their adopted child to whom she can extend her full empathy that Bride can finally confront the superficiality of her healing.

As the novel reveals its most painful secrets in the final chapters and comes full circle to Sweetness, one realises that Morrison has gently readied one for another generation of this complexity she has created. One understands that it is all about to begin again – an innocent life thrown into the morass of violence, abuse, and prejudice created by a world that also offers painful but enduring lessons, friendships, and love.

The words sound canny in Sweetness’s voice, but they are also, ultimately, compassionate. They are simultaneously celebratory and despairing, soft and sure. “God help the child”, breathes Morrison, and it is like a prayer to help all of us along.