Since winning the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993, Toni Morrison’s novels have gotten slimmer and slimmer, as if she’s deliberately sloughing off much of the unnecessary contrivances and plot momentum that drive most novels, and boiling them down to a series of perfectly observed moments. Her latest, Home, is her shortest yet, not even cracking 150 pages, but it’s one of her best. It tells a story of African-Americans living in extreme poverty in the 1950s by capturing a specific moment in the lives of each character she pulls into focus. Morrison assembles all this via an ending that packs an emotional wallop, but even if she hadn’t, the beauty of the individual images along the way would have marked this as a special book.
The novel’s main character, if he can be called that, is Frank Money, a young man making his way across the country to his childhood home in Georgia after returning from the Korean War. Frank was one of the first to fight in the integrated United States Army, but the country he returns to isn’t nearly so at ease with integration, even in Northern states. He heads toward Georgia to be with his sister—one of only two living relatives—who is said to be dying. His journey takes him through both the America of 60 years ago and his own memory.
If Morrison were just writing about the compelling figure of Frank on his journey, that would work well as a novel, but she quickly shifts focus entirely. The second chapter—the book’s longest—details Frank’s voyage to Chicago and beyond, through a wintry silence that masks his unraveling psyche. But it’s interspersed with brief snippets of Frank’s memories, delivered in the first person, as if to an interviewer. When Morrison returns to the main narrative, she picks up with another character entirely—Frank’s sister, long before she’s on her deathbed—then keeps hopping between Frank’s memories and characters with only tangential connections to Frank’s voyage. What all have in common, however, is that they live in a nation that constantly backs them into corners, and when they lash out, it’s often at those closest to them.
Morrison perhaps overloads her book with these figures—it’s not precisely clear just why she needs a third-person view of both Frank and his sister from Frank’s girlfriend and the two’s step-grandmother, respectively—but the effect is almost dreamlike and hypnotic. All the characters are caught in a spare instant, when they’re stuck with a moment of longing for something greater, and slowly realizing that something greater probably won’t come. Morrison’s eerie symbols—a ghostlike man in a zoot suit, a watch without hands—have just the right feel of a nightmare that’s become real, and the book’s sparseness keeps her from dwelling on them to the point where they would become too familiar. It’s the same way with the descriptions of the story’s natural settings, which are effectively otherworldly.
This gives the book’s closing chapters—which finally return to Frank and reveal the wartime secret that’s causing his mind to fragment—a wonderful feeling of healing. When Frank embarks on a mission to put right a crime witnessed in the earliest portion of the book, even though it’s far too late to save the life destroyed by that crime, the novel’s rich history and layered symbolism become all the more poignant. Frank can’t fix a nation or put history right, but perhaps he can find a way to repair himself and those around him. Will that be enough? Maybe not, but sometimes, the attempt is all that’s needed.