‘Human dignity in the face of overwhelming barbarism’ – Home by Toni Morrison

A sweet bay tree, and a gentleman in a pale blue zoot suit: Toni Morrison creates wonderfully concrete symbols that she skilfully weaves into the pattern of her stories.

Home, her latest novel, opens with Frank, a Korean War veteran, contemplating escape from a state mental hospital to find his sister, Cee, who is seriously ill. As he lies on his hospital bed, faking sleep, Frank tries unsuccessfully to focus on any “single neutral object” to keep him calm. “Everything reminded him of something loaded with pain. Visualising a blank sheet of paper drove his mind to the letter he had gotten – the one that had closed his throat: “Come fast. She be dead if you tarry.” ”

Home is the Nobel Prize winning writer’s tenth novel, and follows a stream of extraordinary and accomplished work over the last forty years, including Beloved, her powerful tale of slavery, which features the ghostly presence of a murdered baby. Readers of her earlier works will recognise in Home the rhythms and patterns of her language, and her wonderfully recognisable voice. Just as the dead baby reappears in human form in Beloved, for example, the blue suited gentleman in Home appears real, but we understand that he is Frank’s hallucination – Frank is suffering from what we would now be recognised as post traumatic stress syndrome. Frank, his sister, and their friends and relations in this story have not escaped the legacy of slavery. They are brutalised by segregation and poverty.

It’s a million miles away from recent popular recreations of the period – like the TV show Mad Men, which reinvents the early fifties as an era of glamour, fabulous fashion and free flowing liquor. It was also of course the time when the Cold War was raging. The Korean War, overshadowed now byVietnam, was a first attempt by the States to prevent the spread of Communism across the globe. Furthermore, away from the glossy surfaces of the world of advertising, segregation was in full force, and the Civil Rights movement was still a decade away from action. It’s the last period in which Morrison can set a historical novel before the huge legal and social shifts of the sixties. And this world has more in common with the past than the future which is only around the corner. As a pastor’s wife warns Frank as he begins his journey home to ruralGeorgia: “Maybe you think up North is way different from down South. Don’t believe it and don’t count on it. Custom is as real as law and can be just as dangerous.”

While Frank has been away at war, his sister Cee has made a disastrous and short-lived marriage, then gets a job working for a doctor, who conducts medical experiments on her. If this seems far fetched, bear in mind the true story of Henrietta Lacks, a poor black tobacco farmer from Virginiawhose cancerous cells – taken without her consent in 1951 – now underpin much of the medical research of the last sixty years. Consent, according to Rebecca Lacks’ non fiction work The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, was not sought or considered necessary from a black subject, or her family.

Morrison is a master at showing human dignity in the face of overwhelming barbarism. Her characters suffer; yet Morrison turns cruelty into beautiful and compelling narrative. That’s where the symbols come in. Sometimes her characters use symbols as a way of avoiding their pain; sometimes the symbols represent hope. Somehow, both Frank and Cee must face up to their past, and choose to live. Frank and Cee are like the sweet bay tree “split down the middle, beheaded, undead”: they are damaged yet still alive, still growing. Just like the quilt that Cee makes from unwanted scraps, this novel assembles damaged fragments of lives into something fine, textured and beautiful.

Any Cop?: It’s hard to fault a work from a master writer. Read it for the gorgeous prose.

Ebba Brooks

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