'Home' Is as Precisely Written as Anything in Toni Morrison's Ouevre
What to do after winning the Pulitzer Prize and the Nobel Prize for Literature? How about writing another great book?
Length: 147 pages
Author: Toni Morrison
Publication date: 2013-01
At this point, Toni Morrison doesn't have much left to prove. A series of best-selling and critically acclaimed novels has cemented her legacy, and if that weren't enough, there's the little matter of her 1988 Pulitzer Prize (for Beloved) and 1993 Nobel Prize for Literature. In 2006, the New York Times polled readers and critics to name "the best work of American fiction of the last 25 years." Morrison took home that prize as well, for Beloved, beating out works by Cormac McCarthy, John Updike, Don Delillo and Philip Roth.
While many writers would be understandably eager to rest on their laurels at this point in their careers, Morrison presses on, continuing to produce solid books that add to her legacy. If nothing subsequently matches the critical acclaim of Beloved or Song of Solomon, well, that's okay, too. Such is the case with Home, a slender novel that is as carefully constructed and precisely written as anything in her ouevre.
The book is a study in precision, as well as a cracking good read. Some readers may have felt a little put off by Morrison's more experimental tendencies in Beloved or the more recent Paradise (full disclosure: I had no idea what the hell was going on in that book), but they have nothing to fear here. This is straightforward storytelling which demands reasonable attention from the reader but is never oblique or confusing.
At the heart of the story is Frank Money, a returning Korean War veteran who is making his way across the country from California to Georgia in the mid-'50s. Frank had enlisted in the army with a couple of local buddies, all of them striving to escape the provincialism and racism of their childhoods. Of the three, only Frank survived to return to America. He is a man haunted by many things; the death of his friends is one of them.
Frank's sister Cee has an escape story of her own, one that went wrong in its own way. The details of her difficulty are elusive but repulsive, and Morrison does a good job of suggesting just enough for the reader to fill in the unsettling details. It becomes apparent, over the course of the story, that Frank has been summoned back east to rescue his sister. It's also apparent that this is perhaps the only thing that could have convinced him to make the journey back to a home that harbors many painful associations.
And so, like Odysseus returning from the Trojan War, Frank embarks on a journey home, meeting characters along the way both helpful and otherwise. The focus remains on his travels for much of the story, but there are many other voices added to the chorus as well: the children's grandmother who raised them, a girlfriend Frank picks up along the way, a doctor who gives Cee a job, and others. The overall effect is a kind of multifaceted perspective in which a character mentioned in passing in one chapter becomes the focus of another. This can be slightly disorienting, if the reader is engaged enough in a particular character's storyline and wishes to continue following it longer than Morrison chooses. In general, though, the writing is so smooth and captivating that we are happy to enter the next person's story and soon enough find ourselves immersed in it.
The writing is crisp without being minimal, descriptive without being ornate. Metaphors pop up at unexpected moments, illuminating the mundane: "He sat up and noticed socks folded neatly on the rug like broken feet." Or, "Their parents were so beat by the time they came home from work, any affection they showed was like a razor—sharp, short, and thin."
But it's not all clever verbal pyrotechnics. Much of the writing here is straightforward and simple. "Frank raised Cee to her feet, draped her right arm around his neck. Her head on his shoulder, her feet not even mimicking steps, she was feather-light." Earlier, one chapter begins with this simple declaration: "A mean grandmother is one of the worst things a girl could have."
Devoted readers of Morrison—and there are many—will be curious as to how this book compares to both her early classics and later work. In its straightforward readability and serious themes, it has drawn comparisons to Sula, and that sounds about right. At less than 150 pages, the story doesn't carry the kind of weight that accrues from a heavy mass of dense writing; in fact it reads swiftly and perhaps deceptively quickly. It's well worth a look, though, whether one is a Morrison fan or not.
For all her accomplishments, Morrison is still pushing herself, pushing the limits of her ability and of the written word to contain her vision. That is reason enough to value any new stories she chooses to tell.