160 pp., $24.00
In Toni Morrison's latest novel, Home, horses fight and dogs fight and men fight. Women, too, sometimes. That much—the world being the world and Morrison's fiction her fiction—readers will find familiar at least in tenor. Which is not to make little of the ingenuous, cruel particulars that make Home keen, in both senses of the word.
Take Home's earliest chapters. They shackle Frank (Smart) Money to a hospital bed and make clear that he lands there by way of two fiercer places: his childhood home in Lotus, Georgia, a town stingy with everything but fences and swelter, and his deployment in the Korean War, a theater where no prop-master could keep up with the demand for rotted fruit and severed limbs. These landscapes' shared feature? Unmarked graves. So keening—that grieved and tuneless and half-articulate song—is, any time Frank Money remembers his past, a given. With Morrison, meanwhile, keenness is a given. Her prose is everywhere precise, so that details resonate beyond the immediate. To wit: "socks fol[d] neatly on the rug like broken feet," and a Bulova watch with "no stem, no hands" sums up "the way time function[s] in Lotus, pure and subject to anybody's interpretation."
Home, however, is not the story of a black veteran sifting ugly memories in a psychiatric ward. On the contrary, Frank makes a prompt escape from the hospital, desperate to rescue his younger sister, Ycidra (or Cee), from an abusive man and bring her home to convalesce, even as he deplores Lotus as "the worst place in the world, worse than any battlefield." The past that Frank sifts, then, has to keep pace with the urgent present—and it does. But, whenever his trauma catches up with him, his vision changes; memory applies bleach and black ink to the scenery scrolling by the buses he takes. Likewise, memory knots his hands, automatically, into fists.
Then again, Home is not only Frank's story, either. Granted, only his voice layers the novel—daring and admonishing, in the first person, in short chapters, the primary narrator. At the same time, though, this book, while Frank speaks its monologues and much of its almost omniscient storytelling tails him, also gives his twice-shy, twice-fooled sister a biography. It permits his postwar, not-quite-common-law wife, Lily, some brief. It even tallies a mean grandmother's frustrated aspirations, lending a little pity, on the sly, to a woman crabbed by greed.
To mourn, then, alongside the characters in Home comes easily. What they have lost and what they have failed to long for, their innocent recklessness and their unstinting penance (a penance remarkable, in part, for the desperate logic of its substitutions), make keeping company with Frank and Ycidra, especially, a worthwhile sorrow.
Still, it is not just that we recognize in such characters—in the naïve calculus by which they err and the disproportionate consequences of those errors—ourselves and our dear ones, though we do. We can also apprehend in Home something finer than that, a plot that makes sorrow worthwhile: the clumsy redemption with which earthly stories limber us up for the fullness of grace. In short, Morrison gives us a less cluttered rendition of a story we hope could be told about us.
Thus, even where its readers are not recent veterans (though they might be: recent veterans abound) or prey to abuse (though they might be: abuse has not yet ceased) or familiar with racism (though they might be: to quote its AME Reverend, "custom is just as real as law and can be just as dangerous"), Home defines loss and consolation widely enough to shelter most of us. Put otherwise: even where its readers feel their worries plain (or lucky) compared to the grief and grievances that shape Frank and Ycidra's lives, Home insists that all real sadnesses belong to the same minor song, and that none of them are minor by any other standard. Confessing any loss, then, is a blessing. And answering it, with slant penance or an off-brand, self-preserving mercy, the more so.
This novel does not, of course, sing all its characters' sorrows in full voice; the consequences of its generosity play out otherwise. Only Frank Money solos; Ycidra's accompanists swamp her untested alto; and Lily's aria is a cameo. So be it. Most of us, anyway, will relish these central characters' stories without superimposing our own narratives on them. It will be the choir, consequently, who preaches to us.
Or, at the very least, it is the choir who preaches to me. Not because I would fit in especially well with the no-nonsense women Frank and Cee come home to, women who "practic[e] what they had been taught by their mothers during the period that rich people called the Depression and they called life," but because their fly-specked goodness, which wastes nothing and thinks "mourning […] helpful but God […] better," I can just barely hope to mimic. Nowhere does Morrison embellish this mostly anonymous alliance with backstory. She settles, instead, for citing their "seen-it-all eyes." Thus, the lives of Lotus' womenfolk typically go unsung—lives likely plotted, after all, along less operatic lines than Ycidra's—yet without them, this novel's title would be sardonic. Were it not for these good women, in fact, the home to which Frank and Ycidra return would be the descendant of the slave plantation that Beloved names, mordantly, Sweet Home.