Whose House is This?: Toni Morrison’s Home.

“The crazy part is our last name,” the protagonist of Home states. “Money. Of which we had none.” His name is Frank, Frank Money, and the book opens with him waking in a mental hospital—without any knowledge of how he checked in. Frank, as it turns out, still doesn’t have any money; he served in the Korean War, returned home, and, suffering from undiagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder (an unmentioned but obvious fact throught the novella), has yet, in any sense of the term, to figure out where he is. A letter from a friend of Ycidra, his sister, sets him on a path back to the place he never wanted to return: his home of Lotus, Georgia.

If there was a pantheon of American letters, Toni Morrison would be (rightly) ordering everyone else around. This latest work, a novella, is smaller in scope, but tight and focused—her version of The King Of Limbs or Train Dreams. (Her last work of fiction, A Mercy, came in under 200 pages.) Surveying her work is mapping out the territory of the best of American fiction. Jazz, which caught the improvisations, rhythms and beats of its eponymous style of music, was formally interesting; The Bluest Eye continually culturally relevant; and Song of Solomon just a damn good, well-told story (the latter’s opening sequence, where an insurance agent attempts to fly, is one of the more memorable openings this reader has ever encountered).

Home brims with characters who pole vault off the page. Frank and Ycida’s cruel grandmother, one of the main reasons Frank turned away from Lotus, believed that being born “in the gutter” was “a prelude to a sinful, worthless life.” (“Decent women…delivered babies at home.”) Frank’s nightmares of Korea manage to transcend the tropes of traumatic battle experiences, and the various good souls he meets—including a Reverend named John Locke—echo long after Frank has moved on.

The complications and evils of racism, ever essential to the Morrison oeuvre, are given her consistently light touch here (for example, one woman is unable to obtain a house because there are simply “restrictions”); it is black men and women who help Frank return home, and a white man who, he ultimately finds, is destroying his sister. Morrison is too good to let any of these be heavy-handed, or let a scene be wasted, or a character roam flat. (One might say that she is guilty of explaining a bit too much here and there, however, if nothing else because it breaks up the impressionism of the rest of the text.) The narrative peels back  layers of Frank and Cee’s life, both in past and present, to a conclusion that eventually draws them together. But bringing them back home doesn’t answer their prayers: it only gives them the right questions.

In fact, the novella’s epigraph, drawn from a poem Morrison herself wrote long before the novel, begins with a question: “Whose house is this?” That is a richer, more complex question that it may appear. The same could said, of course, for Home.

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