14 July 2012

Home

This review first appeared in Mint Lounge.

Home is the sailor, home from sea,
And the hunter home from the hill.
 
From Requiem by Robert Louis Stevenson

But for the soldier, is it home from the war? This, really, is the question that Toni Morrison asks in her slim new novel, Home. Frank Money returns to the United States from the Korean War, where he has lost his two best friends and his self-respect, and suffers from what we now know to be post-traumatic stress disorder. The country he returns to is racist America of the fifties, a harder, more unkind version of itself, which offers no homecoming – no home, even – to its veterans. Frank briefly falls in love with a woman named Lily before going in search of his sister Ycidra (Cee) and rescuing her from the medical experiments of a doctor who calls himself an inventor. With Cee, he must return to Lotus, Georgia – “the worst place in the world, worse than any battlefield” – where they spent a despised childhood with a cruel step-grandmother, Lenore, and largely apathetic parents. But to save themselves and, indeed, each other, they must both first find themselves.

Morrison plays and replays the splintered events and pieces them together through the shifting perspectives of Frank, Cee, Lily, and Lenore. The three women who tint our worldviews are wrung by aspiration; they long to leave behind the smallness of their worlds and find very particular spaces – homes – to inhabit. In contrast, Frank, who has left Korea only to find that Korea has not left him, simply longs for an end to the war within himself. While the women are constantly spurred to action, he is inspired only to passivity – until he receives an ominous letter about his sister.

The spite and cruelty of racial politics consistently linger between the lines. We know, without ever being told, which characters are white and which are black; and we know this most often, and most alarmingly, from the way they are treated. Lily is denied the house (and, therefore, titular home) she wants more than anything else. Cee becomes a laboratory rat, medically abused by her employer. Lenore is driven to a marriage of convenience out of a fear for her safety. And Frank is repeatedly assailed, from within and without, as he journeys across the country. These iniquities are not described so much as acknowledged; they are marked by a clipped weariness that underscores their violence, gaining weight from tired resignation rather than outrage.

The fable-like didacticism that was the nucleus of Morrison’s other work is in Home too, especially in the almost simplistic depictions of Lenore and in the many little sentences in which Morrison states what the discerning reader ought to guess. The prose is terser and less winding than in her other work. It remains graceful and sinuous, but it is also more direct and straightforward. There is still emotion (and how could there not be?); Morrison pricks through layers of brutality with the sharpness of an author who knows her characters well, and laces her findings with the tenderness of lived experience.

If in Beloved Morrison wrote a sweeping saga of almost epic proportions, in Home she writes a simpler story – not of heroism, but of survival. But as it often happens in her hands, the women emerge as the unsung everyday heroes, a sisterhood of pragmatic, warm-hearted, no-nonsense goodness. When Frank rescues Cee and takes her to the place that ought to be called home, the womenfolk of Lotus heal her hurting in more ways than one. The healing chapter bears the flags of all the themes that run through Morrison’s novels: communion, womanhood, sacrifice, the inheritance of custom, and the sharing of burdens: “… they practiced what they had been taught by their mothers during the period that rich people called the Depression and they called life.” The women, who coax Frank and Cee into forgiveness and acceptance, are the home the Moneys have come to.

The two-part redemption feels like it’s easier than life usually makes it. Both Frank and Cee step too lightly from distress to calm. In particular, Cee’s passage from an almost incapacitating dependence on her brother to ownership and self-reliance is glossed over. Cee’s sorrows are the crux of the book; her harrowing experiences jolt Frank out of his torpor and move the many women she encounters – neighbours, coworkers, acquaintances – to extraordinary kindness. Yet, her flight to safety and health is too speedy; it occurs through little more a series of wise aphorisms, as though tough love and good advice are enough to restore peace to troubled minds.

Here and there, in short, italicised chapters, Frank Money addresses the narrator, whom he thinks is “set on telling [his] story”. He frequently rights her wrongs (“Don’t paint me as some enthusiastic hero.”), scolds her (“Is that too hard for you to understand?”), and challenges her to get it right (“I don’t think you know much about love. Or me.”). These chapters read like a loving but impatient admission of the limitations of writing: “You don’t know what heat is until you cross the border from Texas to Louisiana in the summer. You can’t come up with words that catch it. Trees give up. Turtles cook in their shells. Describe that if you know how.”

Frank’s commentary is what makes this volume entirely real. His admissions are tinged with an optimism that is both heartbreaking and uplifting; at the same time, he is consciously devoid of the romanticism that the narrative is given to. These chapters seem to be telling the real story as a mordant aside. They are the memories, unreliable by their very nature, that are more potent than objectivity. They encase individual, unconnected moments that seem to be mocking the main narrative’s insistence on a story that ties together, on an arc that childishly depends on conflict and resolution. Frank’s notes urge us never to forget the atrocities of our past, never to lull ourselves into the security of happier times; they remind us too, in their own piano-soft and hopeful way, that it is through sheer human decency that we rid ourselves of our demons and mend our wounded hearts and jaded spirits. These chapters form a powerful trajectory from war to peace.

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