Reviewed by Sheheryar Sheikh
PERHAPS it is unfair to compare a newer work by a Nobel Prize-winning author with her earlier books. But then, publishing and critical sensations of Toni Morrison’s stature are on the pedestal heaped with past works that help them sell newer books by the millions. The formidable amount of glory, praise and fame for previous books also generates a blind respect and adulation among devoted fans for her newer work. Such impetuousness from their readers prevents great writers from writing better in the future. And Toni Morrison is capable of much better.
Home is in many ways the opposite of Morrison’s acclaimed masterpiece Beloved. Where Beloved was an epic that overwhelmed with its impressive density, Home makes for a shallow read into
similar areas. Morrison’s novels have never strayed far from her original explorations of racial prejudice, redemptions based on religion and self-reliance, false memories, and loss of loved ones. These themes from her earlier works are visible in Home too, though not as well explored or developed.
At the start of the novel, recently returned Korean War veteran Frank Money wakes up in a “nuthouse”, his hand tied to the bed. He does not know how he got there, as he is prone to blackouts caused by the trauma of war. But Frank knows what he needs to do. He must escape and make his way back home to the small town in Georgia he loathes. He must go back to rescue his sister, who is in danger at the hands of her employer.
Managing to escape, Frank makes his way to a church, where he is given a helping hand by the first of several benefactors on the long road trip home. The trip lasts for the better part of the novel, while Frank and his sister Cee’s backstories are recounted, from their childhood when he was overprotective of her to him heading off to join the army and her falling into a bad marriage. Interspersed between the chapters are snatches of monologue by Frank, telling the unrevealed narrator about parts of his life. Morrison likes to interrupt the narrative arc of her novels with such devices, and through the ones in this book, we get a much closer look at the confusions and convictions that make up Frank Money.
In the rest of the novel, as long as the third-person narrator stays with Frank, the language is vibrant, and there is an expectation that this short novel will blaze and burst into a glory of linguistic fireworks. In short sections, sentences work with something akin to literature’s golden ratio. Frank’s falling in love with a Laundromat attendant is something that helps him with his trauma and related blackouts. But the new romance is also elevated into a quick thrust of multilevel psychological insight with this sentence: “Most important, he was no longer attracted to other women — whether they were openly flirting or on display for their own private pleasure.”
At another place, foreshadowing the impending redemption for both Frank and Cee, Morrison uses her best religiously charged sentences to describe the mysterious ways of the divine: “Exactly the way the old folks said: not when you call Him; not when you want Him; only when you need Him and right on time.”
But the language is not consistently evocative, the themes are handled sloppily for the most part and the plot is not fully realised, leaving a taste of something stale that should not have been consumed.
Cee and Frank’s revitalisation comes about as contrived, which fails Frank more than Cee as a character. He is an interesting blend of war-generated stress and extreme tenderness for his sister. But Morrison abandons his inner progress after he confesses to something horrible he did during the war. After that confession, she no longer leaves Frank any room to talk to the narrator. His inner self simply disappears, and we are told that he finds inner peace and redemption.
Home is a quick read, only 145 pages long, and not very complex. There is very little meandering away from the linear thrust of the novel. That lack of digression may be the book’s biggest failing. The minor characters are cut-outs, even sketches. The scenes that contain them are also outlines, mere glimpses. Nothing is developed. The ingredients are there, certainly. But they are all laid out, without any cooking being done.
For example, a precocious kid with a damaged arm leaves a distinct impression with his answer to Frank’s question about what he wants to be when he grows up. “A man,” he says, before walking away. How can a writer not fill up reams with that kind of a set-up? It is abandoned within Home.
It’s as if Morrison wrote an outline for some other novel, a grander work that she wanted to explore deeply, and develop into a whale of a book. But then, somewhere along the way, she fell out of love with the potential sprawl of it all, and took the safest route out by ending it on a sermonising note.
It could be that she bought into her own brand, or was compelled to by her readers, who know her novels have a desired group of themes. Maybe, just by being who she is, Morrison evokes those previous novels’ realistic as well as magical-realistic narratives well enough even in the spare and undeveloped Home to perpetuate the adulation from her fans.
Beloved was a masterpiece. A Mercy and Jazz were magnificent. That Home is leagues below their level does not take away from Morrison’s abilities. She can still create magic with her next book. Yes, she is 81 years old now, and may not have too many novels left in her. But should she suffer the indignity of writing below her potential?
Home does injustice to her talent and her discernment. She should have shelved it as an exploration, and used the finest bits of it to craft something she would have stayed interested in, and with which she could have stayed in love.
By Toni Morrison