There are some authors who have such a presence in the literary world that it can actually put you off reading them, Toni Morrison has always been one such author for me. I have heard so many people talk about her work, in particular with reference to ‘Beloved’, and how amazing her writing is that I have always feared I might pick a novel of hers and simply not ‘get’ it. Yet, as I am sure you all know, sometimes life throws these authors and their books in our paths. I ended up being sent ‘Home’, Morrison’s latest novella, by We Love This Book to review and so, with slight trepidation, I finally got around to reading my first Toni Morrison work.
In the very first chapter of ‘Home’ we are given a flashback of something horrific happening in a young man’s childhood sometime in the past. In the second we join him (well we assume it is him) as he lies trying to work out his escape from a psychiatric ward in the 1950’s. It is in these two brief and instant portraits of a character that we meet our narrator, 24 year old Korean War veteran Frank Money and instantly we want to know more about him. What happened in his childhood that he barely comprehends and yet leads him to drink? Why is he locked in a psychiatric hospital and why must he escape at any cost? It’s this style of mysterious, yet very restrained, prose that makes us as the reader almost unable to put ‘Home’ down for its deceptive 160 pages.
Though a novella, which may lead us into believing ‘Home’ could be a slight book for the big subjects it covers, there is so much going on in the book you can’t help but be impressed by how its crafted. Morrison doesn’t let a word run spare. The prose is poetic yet hard and forceful. Every single word matters, you have the feeling the author has made them work for their rite to be included.
As Frank makes his escape and heads to Georgia, relying on the good will of people, we get further flashbacks of brief, yet harrowing, insight into the part he played in the war and how it’s affected him. We also get to see the darker parts of life and society at the time through Frank’s observations as he travels. These, like his flashbacks, come in short, sharp and rather shocking bursts, confronting the reader in varying ways and providing food for thought from sentence to sentence.
“The abused couple whispered to each other, she softly, pleadingly, he with urgency. He will beat her when they get home, thought Frank. And who wouldn’t? It’s one thing to be publically humiliated. A man could move on from that. What was intolerable was the witness of a woman, a wife, who not only saw it, but had dared to try to rescue – rescue! – him. He couldn’t protect himself and he couldn’t protect her either, as the rock in her face proved. She would have to pay for that broken nose. Over and over again.”
Because ‘Home’ is quite short I don’t want to give too much more away. That and the fact that Frank is quite an enigma really though the novel, you learn as you go and so to spoil that would also be wrong of me. I did really like the way I couldn’t decide if he was a decent guy, completely mad or just dangerous though. But I don’t think I should say more than that.
Darkness and questions seem to be its themes, that in part might be why I liked it so instantly to start with, and Morrison keeps hints of things from the past popping up in the present to keep us reading on. I think that the best novella’s leave you in one of two states; you either come away feeling perfectly sated from the experience or you come away wanting more. In the case of ‘Home’ I came away wanting, not because the novella wasn’t full enough but because I wanted more of the back story in even more detail, but then that isn’t really what ‘Home’ is about. Only the best authors can make a novella epic and, with ‘Home’, America’s only living Nobel Laureate shows us how it is done and gives us a sign that there is yet more to come in the future. Until Morrison’s next novel appears I will definitely be making sure I try some of her back catalogue in the meantime.
Has anyone else read ‘Home’ and what did you think? I would be interested to see how a Morrison aficionado rates this novella compared to her other work. Which of Toni Morrison’s other novels have you read? Where should I be heading to next?
This is an extended version of a review I wrote for We Love This Book which you can see here.