Toni Morrison is one of those rare novelists whose work has achieved the pinnacle of both critical and popular success. She's a Nobel Prize-winning author (the last American to have won, in fact, in 1993) whose novels have been made into feature films and included in Oprah's Book Club. Her books --- especially BELOVED, THE BLUEST EYE and SONG OF SOLOMON --- are staples of college literature, women's studies, and ethnic studies classrooms. But what can be easy to forget amid all these accolades, both high and low, is the mix of loveliness, power and horror that lies at the center of Morrison's writing. This make her novels so exhilarating and heartbreaking to read.
"In a novel this slim by a novelist this talented, every single word and detail carry massive importance.... Morrison's narrative, though straightforward and supremely readable, is also unsurprisingly deep and complex."
At only 145 pages long, narrated in a relatively straightforward style, HOME is certainly Morrison's most accessible novel in recent memory. Despite its size, though, it packs in some big ideas and weighty American themes, as she tells a story that is both expansive in its scope and intimate in its focus.
Frank Money (the puns Morrison makes on his name are numerous and delightfully inventive) is on his way home to Georgia following a tour of service in the Korean War. His two best friends --- his closest friends since childhood --- have been killed in brutal ways, and he himself carries scars that no one else can see. He's shell-shocked and aimless, horrified by the extent of racial division in the United States after years of fighting alongside white men in an integrated military.
A simple letter, however, provides the motivation Frank needs to make this difficult and dangerous journey. All through his childhood, Frank was the protector and substitute parent for his little sister, Cee. Now, he has learned that Cee is in danger from some unspecified source and may, in fact, already be dead. Rescuing her may restore Frank's sense of himself, but it may also drive him toward more memories he wishes could stay buried.
In a novel this slim by a novelist this talented, every single word and detail carry massive importance. Some of Morrison's verbal agility is playful (like her puns), some is horrific (like the descriptions of Frank's war losses or of Cee's own damaged body), and some is straightforward brilliant, as she elegantly says so much with so few words. "They practiced what they had been taught by their mothers," she writes of the women who tend to Cee's battered body, "during the period that rich people called the Depression and they called life."
Morrison's narrative, though straightforward and supremely readable, is also unsurprisingly deep and complex. Individual chapters are told from the points of view of Frank and Cee, as well as a couple of other characters (namely the siblings' grandmother and Frank's former girlfriend). Some chapters are vignettes from the past, set in italics and seeming at times to address the storyteller herself and to question her representational techniques. The result is a novel that can be enjoyed on different levels by different sorts of readers, but whose indelible images will reside with all of them universally.
HOME offers an often bleak view of race and class in the second half of the 20th century, to be sure, but it also --- in both small moments and greater truths --- offers glimpses of grace and hope. "Look to yourself," says one woman to a slowly-healing Cee. "You free. Nothing and nobody is obliged to save you but you. Seed your own land. You young and a woman and there's serious limitation in both, but you a person too…. Somewhere inside you is that free person I'm talking about. Locate her and let her do some good in the world." The ground may seem barren and the prospects for a good harvest unlikely at best, but Morrison's characters are resilient, and in their strength and fragile freedom lie their best chance for a future.
Reviewed by Norah Piehl on May 11, 2012