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"Review: Toni Morrison's Home"

The Times of London, April 2012

Toni Morrison’s Home is an affecting portrait of a soldier’s return. In this spare and visual novella, Nobel Prize winner Morrison inquires what it means to be a man in America. Much like the clean and radically simple lines of a Jacob Lawrence painting, and as rich in narrative movement, Morrison creates a modern allegory of an African American man’s existential crisis in Home.

Frank Money, a black veteran of the Korean War, has no wish to go back to his hometown, “the worst place in the world, worse than any battlefield”, so he drifts, drinking heavily and refusing to find work.

In a moment of grace, Frank meets Lily, a pretty seamstress, and follows her home. Despite their ardor, the relationship faces trouble because Frank cannot break through his haze of war memories. Lily labours all day and comes home to find dishes in the sink, linens on the floor, and her lover seated on the sofa looking blankly. Her private dream for a house of her own in a respectable neighborhood is nigh impossible, and though she has a man in body, he cannot help her. “The fog of displeasure surrounding Lily thickened.” When Frank gets a letter invoking him to rescue his sister Cee, Lily does not mind his departure.

Morrison’s Lily is the model of the self-sufficient woman who can love a man, but is OK without one. “The loneliness she felt before Frank walked her home from Wang’s cleaners began to dissolve and in its place a shiver of freedom, of earned solitude, of choosing the wall she wanted to break through, minus the burden of shouldering a tilted man.” The man leaves the woman, and the woman is better off .

Since Morrison’s first novel, The Bluest Eye, literary critics have mined her fiction for her views of gender and power. Morrison’s work is also heavily informed by history, and her most famous work, Beloved, is a book about slavery. Home, a novel set in the 1950s, less than a century after the Civil War, is unquestionably affected by the legacy of slavery and how history mediates gender roles. American slave owners controlled men and women by creating divisions within the slave family unit in obvious ways: family members were sold, romantic bonds were not recognised and, by the very definition of slavery, a slave’s work was not compensated, so there was no economic head of household. After the Civil War, society did little to protect or foster the African American family, which was nevertheless expected to behave like the majority white family unit and was criticised when it did not. In Home, Morrison takes on black masculinity as a central theme in the era prior to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, when black men were brutally and systematically objectified, emasculated and demoralised.

Susan Neal Mayberry, in her seminal study of the masculine in Toni Morrison’s fiction, writes that social constructions of traditional white masculinity — in stark contrast with the crime, suicide, illness and unemployment of black men in America — cause “many African American males to experience anomie, a rootlessness that arises when individuals internalise socially inculcated needs and desires but face structural impediments to realising them”.

Home is Morrison’s vivid portrayal of a young man’s anomie in a hostile world. His rage, lost to himself, destroys his relationship with Lily, yet when his sister needs his help, Frank must try again to be a better man. Frank and Cee grew up with hard working but mostly absent parents and suffered the abuse of a mean-spirited grandmother. When Frank enlists, Cee falls for Prince, “a good-looking new face with shiny, thin-soled shoes”. Prince marries Cee, takes her to the big city, then drives off in her grandmother’s Ford. In Morrison’s world, Frank Money never has a cent, and a Prince is a bum. Ashamed, Cee cannot return home. She finds work with a doctor who will perform experiments on her. Frank becomes her only hope.

What makes a man a man anyway? Frank Money, a black American sent to Korea to fight, is man enough to be a soldier, but when he returns home, it is clear that war has not made him more of a man. When Frank is found bloodied on a street, he is man enough, ie, dangerous, to be institutionalised even though he has not been charged of a crime. Even though he is man enough to be a lover to Lily, he cannot be an economic or emotional provider. Without models or guidance, Frank must struggle to be whole, and this story is his quest.

The novella begins with a kind of a prologue of a haunting burial that the young Frank and Cee witnessed, and the narrative ends with an exhumation of that unnamed male body. In a country that holds both the Obama Presidency and the shooting of the black youth Trayvon Martin as truths, Morrison’s backward glance at 1950s America serves as a timely abstraction of history’s progress and delay. Morrison, a writer of consummate grace and vision, illuminates Frank’s journey home allowing shards of light in his brokenness.

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