Stylist Magazine ran an interview with Toni Morrison in a recent issue, and I realised that, though I knew of her, I hadn’t yet read her. It felt like an unforgiveable oversight that needed to be remedied immediately.
Conscious of my ever-increasing Kindle bill, I went to the library and borrowed her 2012 novel Home. I was gripped from the first chapter to the last.
Morrison’s themes of racial conflict, women’s repression and the effects of war are hefty. She doesn’t flinch from raw violence and the darker side of humanity. But throughout this small book, we see redeeming qualities: faith, courage and kindness. The hope in the story far outweighs the despair and keeps you turning pages.
Well, that, and Morrison just writes so damn well.
The novel centres on Frank, a war-damaged veteran of Korea, trying to get back to his sister, Cee. She’s sick, near death at the hands of her employer, and Frank’s the only one who can save her. But the end of the journey – both physically and psychologically – is their childhood home in Lotus, Georgia, and it’s the place he most wants to avoid. This tension and the ghosts in the recesses of Frank’s mind are part of what makes Home a compelling read.
Morrison’s storytelling moves between Frank’s first person address – recalled memories, justifications, explanations – and the more traditional third-person narrative. While the book is about Frank and his quest to rescue his sister, his story is interspersed with those of the women in his life.
Through alternating chapters we come to know and understand Cee; their mean grandma, Lenore; Frank’s sort-of girlfriend, Lily; and the neighbourhood women back in Lotus. These women aren’t props, there merely to add colour to Frank’s story. They are fully drawn personalities with backstories, emotions and ambitions. For me, they are the heart of the story.
They are also where I connect most with Morrison’s writing. Take this passage from Lily’s story:
“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. Unobstructed and undistracted, she could get serious and develop a plan to match her ambition and succeed. That was what her parents had taught her and what she had promised them: To choose, they insisted, and not ever be moved. Let no insult or slight knock her off her ground.”
Morrison’s fullness of story paired with an economy of words is inspiring. This is storytelling at its finest: detailed, concrete and human.
This may be my first Morrison book, but it won’t be my last. Are you a Morrison fan? I’d love to hear which of her novels are your favourites. Tell me in the comments below!