In the last two weeks, I have enjoyed two relatively short, masterful novels by two of the most revered authors of our times: The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes, and Home by Toni Morrison. Both books featured a memorable protagonist, great supporting characters, and mesmerizing prose, and both captured the passage of time in all its catastrophic beauty.
Home is the tenth novel by Morrison, who has won the National Book Critics Circle Award, the Pulitzer Prize, and the Nobel Prize in Literature! To compare any new novel from this powerhouse to her previous work always seems unfair, if only because Beloved is one of the uncontested heavyweight champs of the literary world from the past fifty years. In truth, each and every Morrison novel is a gem, and Sula, Song of Solomon, and Paradise can take pride of place next to Beloved as highlights of an extraordinary career.
Home is a wonderful entry to the Morrison oeuvre. In fact, a phrase employed by The Guardian to describe The Sense of an Ending works just as well for Home: "A work of beauty, in a minor key." Home is not a sprawling novel like Song of Solomon, nor is it as complex and multi-layered as Paradise. In fact, it's relatively straightforward in its telling, in spite of covering a great span of years and several characters. The protagonist is Frank Money, who recently served in the Korean War. Leaving the desegregated military to rejoin a segregated society has been difficult for Money, who has taken to drinking and found himself in trouble more than once. The love of a good woman has settled him, but as the novel opens, he is leaving Seattle to return to Macon, Georgia, the hometown he loathes and vowed never to set foot in again. Alas, his sister Cee, the real love of his life, is critically ill. A letter has arrived telling Frank only to, "Come fast. She be dead if you tarry." Having protected his sister since childhood, Frank escapes from the psych ward of a hospital and catches a train across the country.
The majority of Morrison's novels (with the notable exception of Song of Solomon) feature female protagonists, and what a wonderful, indelible, diverse group of women they are. Here, at last, she returns to a male protagonist, albeit one who is motivated mainly by his love of the women in his life. Frank Money stands with Morrison's best creations, in spite of his relatively short amount of "air time." This book is less than 150 pages in length, and in addition to Frank's story, there are chapters focusing on his latest girlfriend, and his wicked grandmother. Additionally, Morrison indulges just a bit of her experimental side with some short, italicized chapters told from Frank's point of view (most of the book's chapters are told in the third person omniscient tense), in which he argues with Home's narrator and challenges the reliability of the narration.
Similarly, Julian Barnes presents us with an unreliable narrator in The Sense of An Ending, although on a much larger scale. Unlike Frank Money, Tony Webster narrates the entirety of Barnes's novel, which covers more than sixty years in his life. Like Penelope Lively's exquisite Moon Tiger (1987), The Sense of An Ending raises questions of the validity of our memories when shaping our own life stories. As we read, we have no choice but to trust Tony, yet he steps back multiple times to warn us that his memories may have holes in them, and to pointedly question whether his narration has been warped and reshaped by the intervening years. Like Claudia, the protagonist of Moon Tiger, Tony is employed to raise (but never truly answer) some philosophical questions, as well as more straightforward ones of time, memory, and the nature of autobiography.
All questions of narration and philosophical themes aside, The Sense of An Ending is a captivating novel that held my interest from page one. A character study of one man, it is also the tale of a secret, one that comes back later in life to shake things up and raise questions about the past. If this all sounds a bit heavy or melodramatic, never fear: Barnes keeps the pace moving and always pointed forward, in spite of the fact that his character is constantly looking back. Themes of young love, class warfare, and wasted opportunities rear their heads, but the novel never feels mired down in its own intellect. Ultimately, the secret from the past, involving a suicide and a burned diary, serves as enough of a plot to drive this otherwise character-driven novel right down the literary highway at full speed. The conclusion of The Sense of an Ending packs a wallop, the sort of old-fashioned shocking revelation that has propelled many great books throughout history, and one that practically forces you into a reread. You'll see, upon finishing The Sense of An Ending, just how much thought and brilliant foreshadowing Barnes instilled in this novel.
Home is equally well-crafted, hinging not on a secret, but a rescue. Frank races from West Coast to East Coast in a racially divided America to save his sister, who has fallen victim to the experiments of a doctor by whom she was employed. The nature of these experiments is made explicit, but they are not a crucial part of the story. The main theme here is sibling love, and there is genuine beauty in the way that battle weary Frank is single mindedly focused on the well being of Cee. Cee is no weak woman, though. She emerges in her own chapter as hardworking, interested, and plucky, and by the end of the novel she has made a transformation within herself that will shape the rest of her life. For Morrison to render this supporting character so vividly within such a short amount of pages is testimony to her ongoing powers as a writer, one of the greatest we've ever seen (and America's only living Nobel Laureate).
Both Home and The Sense of an Ending are short, fast-moving novels, expertly crafted and beautifully written. Julian Barnes and Toni Morrison need no further accolades from anyone, but it's certainly refreshing to see that neither is resting on their laurels. Their latest novels can stand proudly beside their past works. And who knows: maybe their career bests are yet to come? Based on the strength of Home and The Sense of an Ending, that possibility is certainly not out of the question.