How many themes does a novel need? I could have used a GPS to navigate the many paths that Toni Morrison takes us down in her latest book, Home. Is this an account of a road trip? Is this about a young man with post- traumatic stress following the Korean War? Is this about the plight of black Americans in the 1950s? Is it, as the title suggests, about the green, green grass of home? But then, why is the opening poem about self-awareness? Maybe it's about learning to be a man like the brutal horses who 'stood like men.' It's all of these things, in 145 pages. At Can.$25.95, maybe I'm getting my money's worth with so many ideas to chew through. Or maybe I'm asking myself, "Where's the editor of this tangle?"
I'll focus on the positive: Morrison has created a full and likable character in Frank, the protagonist and he engages my interest. He is complex and sympathetic. As a toddler he took responsibility for his baby sister, Cee, and he never wavered in his role as her protector. She is the constant in his life which he recognizes: "Deep down inside her lived my secret picture of myself - a strong good me… p.103" He is a decent kid who had never left his home in rural Georgia until he went to the freezing front of the Korean War where he lost his two childhood friends, saw atrocities and committed them himself, and came home damaged, shell-shocked and alcoholic. The main narrative concerns his search for recovery and I admire his persistence.
The other character to whom I responded is Frank's girlfriend, Lily. In one strong chapter, which reads like a short story, she decides that loneliness is a price she is willing to pay to find self-fulfilment through ambition and independence. But Lily then disappears from the narrative and her contribution to the plot is unclear.
Insight into the characters is enhanced by the experimental and interesting technique of inserting italicized first-person passages which sometimes contradict the third-person narrator. Another less successful experiment is the random appearances of a mystery man dressed in a zoot-suit. His role is puzzling.
I expected some lovely writing from this winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, and in many passages I was not disappointed: "He pulled the trigger. The click from the empty chamber was both tiny and thunderous." And, "egg yolks, not sliding now, but stuck like phlegm to the window." Frank experiences, "the free-floating rage, the self-loathing disguised as somebody else's fault." These passages are evocative.
But I am at a loss with, "the sound of a cheap cello coming from a chute of cattle…", a "heart jump of sorrow," a woman in a wheelchair who is "quick as a hummingbird," and a face which, "seemed to morph into the front of a jeep." Morph?
Despite my enjoyment of some of the characters and language, Morrison's multitude of themes distanced me and left me unsatisfied. The underlying theme is the poverty of Black America in the 1950s: poverty of opportunity, support, ambition and finances. But some of the incidents, like the attack on the couple traveling on the train, did not advance the plot. This would be acceptable in a longer work, but a short novel should be spare and focussed. I thought that I was reading a road trip story.
Another important theme is the rehabilitation of black GIs after the Korean War, a big issue. In Frank's case this is effected by his return to his nurturing home environment. As the book is titled Home, it must be that an important theme is one's attachment to home, which in this book is Lotus, a run-down rural black settlement in Georgia. Ambivalent love of home is a familiar theme, starting with The Odyssey, but the depiction of Lotus is fuzzy. At times this village seems soul-less, ignorant and dead-end, a place that offered Frank and Cee no guidance and no support, where the little girl was criticised by everyone, neighbours wagged their tongues, but no one intervened on their behalf. Both children left at the first opportunity. But when the narrative suddenly segues to Cee's story, we hear her reminiscing fondly of a brook full of fish, gardens full of crops, and kindly neighbours fixing each others' front steps. At the end of the book, home is where redemption is found. Frank and Cee discover a community of women rich in goodwill and traditional knowledge and values. The rediscovery of the healing values of home, the Prodigal Son story, is a full theme in itself, but Morrison has so many themes going that she doesn't fully develop this one.
In this potentially nurturing village, it seems that Frank and Cee's parents were the anomaly, too tired after work to care for their children. Both children grew up to be scarred by the adult world for which their parents had given them no preparation. Thus, the importance of caring parenting would seem to be another theme.
But finally, I have concluded that Morrison's main theme must be self-knowledge and self-acceptance. My evidence is the action in the first and last chapters, Frank's italicised first-person accounts, and the poem in the frontispiece:
"Whose house is this?
Whose house keeps out the light
Say, who owns this house?
It's not mine.
I dreamed another, sweeter, brighter
With a view of lakes crossed in painted boats;
Of fields wide as arms open for me.
This house is strange.
Its shadows lie.
Say, tell me, why does its lock fit my key?"
The strong image created in the opening chapter with echoes in the final chapter must have significance. It concerns the fighting stallions. The opening sentence is, "They rose up like men. We saw them. Like men they stood." And the chapter ends," They were so beautiful. So brutal. And they stood like men." In the final action of the book, Frank nails a board to a tree beside the grave of a murdered man whom he had reburied as a mark of respect. On the board he has written, "Here Stands a Man"
In the first-person account (p. 103) Frank talks about, "a strong good me tied to the memory of those horses and the burial of a stranger."
Cee also discovers the strength that comes from belief in herself, and under the tutelage of the Lotus women she learns not to lean on her brother. Although I found this sudden identification and resolution of her need too abrupt and tidy, it does illustrate the importance of this theme.
Persistent excavation has enabled me to make some sense of this novel, but a cohesive and disciplined narration would have made it a much more satisfying read. My verdict is that I was left disappointed and unsatisfied by Morrison's lack of focus and disjointed narrative. Too bad.