When reviewing the newest book of a Nobel literature laureate, it is perhaps best to get the inevitable comparisons to previous works out of the way first. Toni Morrison’s novella Home falls short of her most famous work Beloved, and as an introduction to the author, her earlier The Bluest Eye would be better to begin with. That said, Home is worth reading on its own merits.
Home tells the story of Frank Money’s return to his roots. Frank is a poor, Black veteran of the Korean War, with what would be diagnosed today as post-traumatic stress disorder. His story is given physical and metaphoric direction when he hears that his sister Ycidra (“Cee”) is in need of rescue.
As he journeys to Lotus — his poverty stricken hometown in Georgia — we get intervals with the women who shape his journey, from his ex-girlfriend to his grandmother, to his sister.
Though Home is historical fiction, it reads as an indictment of present-day US race relations and politics. The pre-Civil Rights 1950s USA to which Frank returns is different from the modern day in some things; trains are cheaper than buses, public water fountains are labelled “coloured”. But when the book describes a scene in which an eight-year-old with a cap pistol gets shot at by a policeman, it’s hard not to think of Trayvon Martin, the 17-year-old who was shot in 2012 for the crime of being male, black and “suspicious-looking”. When the police stop and search Frank and his companion and steal Frank’s money, what comes to mind is the recent protests against the New York Police Department’s “Stop and Frisk” policy that disproportionately targets Black and Latino males. And when Frank’s sister Cee is abused by a doctor who experiments on her, she stands in a line that stretches not just back to Sarah Baartman (the “Hottentot Venus” whose genitals were preserved in 1815 and kept on display at the Musée de l ’Homme till 1974) but forward to the late 1990s when US legislators tried to pass Bills that would force certain women to accept contraceptive implants over being imprisoned.
Morrison pointedly does not use racial descriptors in this book, and the result is a superficially colourblind world where race is seldom mentioned but racism is systemic and pervasive. She seems to be holding a mirror up to the White smugness that finds new reason every generation to declare that racism is over and It Gets Better. She is equally ruthless in her examination of millenarianism. The Korean War was the first in which racially integrated troops went abroad to enforce the US’ political will on a non-White citizenry that had no power to object to their land being overrun by soldiers killing civilians in their name. In 2012, as the US maintains a similar state of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, it is clear that Morrison does not look at a soldier at war through the rose-tinted lens of nostalgic patriotism.
The theme running through the book is how “home” gets defined in the face of homelessness, whether imposed through displacement, poverty, exile, racial segregation, or mental unmooring. But the thread beneath that asks, what is a man? If a house is not necessarily a home, then a body with a mind is not necessarily a man; never so, if he is addressed as “boy”. One of the profound ways in which Morrison gives her characters agency is by focusing on the battles they wage within themselves to recover from choices that they can identify as monstrous. Too often the socially disenfranchised are written as one-note victims. But the kernel around which Morrison's characters crystallise is self-definition: imagining a morality and then struggling to cleave to it. And this is what makes them as much arbiters of their own fate as any straight White middle-class man encumbered only by the social morality that forces him to angst about having an affair with his college student.
Given the brevity of this novella, Morrison's literary experimentation sticks out like a beautiful skeleton, preventing the narrative from fully fleshing out the actual characters. She recursively plays with the terms “home” and “like a man”; she juxtaposes the absence of descriptive colour with Frank’s episodes of colour blindness. Structurally, she brings in metatextual first-person interjections from Frank every other chapter to challenge the selectively omniscient narrator of the other half. This not only complicates the plot, but also reminds the reader not to assume that any narrator is objective and all-knowing. Unfortunately, these flourishes do not add up to a tale fully told, but they do provide rich fragments like, “After Hiroshima, the musicians understood as early as anyone that Truman’s bomb changed everything and only scat and bebop could say how.”
Without spoiling the ending, Morrison’s narrative does reduce Frank and Cee a trifle to symbols. The argument she makes with them, however, is powerful: history belongs not to the past, but to the present, and it is in how we choose to bear witness to it that we define our future selves.
Chatto & Windus
160 pages; Price Rs 499