Chatto & Windus, £12.99, 145pp. £11.69 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

Home, By Toni Morrison

 

Toni Morrison's novels never happen in the here and now. They take place after the Great Depression or during the Jazz age, in 19th-century Ohio or in pre-slavery north America, as was the case in her last and ninth novel, A Mercy.

Yet these pasts are not simple African American histories. They are unresolved, uncontained and they insinuate themselves into the present like the eponymous ghost child in Beloved, who haunts the living with such force that she becomes flesh and blood. The unresolved past in Home is 1950s America, and Morrison's central character, Frank, has just returned from the Korean war to begin his transition from fighting in a desegregated army to living in a segregated America.

There is no hero's welcome. Frank is still America's second-class citizen, even if he has killed in its name. Home, for him, is a hard-faced, indifferent land, in which he must heal his own scars. The post-traumatic stress disorder he suffers can hardly be more topical as America's military involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan rages on.

Neither can the subject of institutionalised racism, given the political furore over the recent shooting of a black teenager, Trayvon Martin, in Florida. Frank's emotional fall-out - and the reader's immersion in his semi-hallucinatory inner monologue at the start of the book - could be that of a soldier returning from the Helmand front today.

But Home is not about war as much as its aftermath. Morrison has said that Barack Obama's election was the first time she felt "powerfully patriotic". This tenth novel by the Nobel Prize-winning writer can be read as an examination of patriotism – the idea of belonging to, and fighting for, one's country, and what this means for an ordinary African American man.

For Frank it means freedom of sorts, because it offers him escape from his mean existence in Lotus, Georgia, the type of town where "there was no future, only long stretches of killing time". We meet Frank half-dressed and fleeing from a hospital ward to make his Greyhound bus migration to the South. He has lain handcuffed in his hospital bed, we are told, and his arrival from Korea is a symbolic return to bondage from which he must break free.

A sympathetic minister who harbours him after his hospital escape expresses the racial outrage that Frank never articulates: "An integrated army is integrated misery. You all fight, come back, they treat you like dogs. Change that. They treat dogs better."

It is interesting that Morrison chose the Korean War as her backdrop. A closer parallel to Iraq, if she had wanted it, might have been Vietnam with all its moral murkiness and internal opposition. Korea is perhaps understood as a more just war, and its homecoming for troops an ostensible return to the land of the free, though Frank's story highlights the injustices of the country in whose name the just war was fought.

Morrison excels at presenting a raw and moving portrait of fractured masculinity, just as she did in Song of Solomon with Milkman, her first fully-developed male protagonist, in an effort to "de-domesticate the landscape" and bring "a radical shift in imagination from a female locale to a male one." She won critical plaudits and her men have, ever since, been as complex and as compassionate as her women. So it is with Frank, although his journey never achieves the depth and dimension of Milkman's epic progress, with its wider explorations of family, friendship, racial violence and love.

Comparing Home to the extraordinary achievement of Morrison's past works, this is a less dazzling, more incomplete novel, though it is fast and fluid in its storytelling. The sibling migration – Frank and his younger sister Cee's journey back to Georgia – which leads to transformation and healing, seems all too brief and anticlimactic, lacking the complexity we have come to expect of Morrison. Frank's interior world is a devastating place to be, yet there is a slight sense of his voice tapering off by the end. There is so much more he could say, particularly about the shooting of a small Korean girl, inspired by the shock of illicit sexual craving for her. Perhaps Home is a deliberate attempt at brevity – this, like her last novel, is more a novella in size. Morrison might also have pared down her prose as a rejoinder to those critics who label her writing poetic -– to her chagrin, when she has stated her intention to capture an earthier street vernacular. The lyricism appears sporadically – in a striking preface poem; in the first few pages of vividly recaptured childhood trauma.

Whereas in her first novel, The Bluest Eye, the Ohio town of Lorain was uncompromisingly inhospitable, cruelly stratified along class and caste lines, here Lotus transforms into a place of salvation on the siblings return, with its community of benign womenfolk who act as Cee's healers. Her recovery from a serious condition, with the help of these women, shows that new homes and havens can be re-forged from old.

The narration is split between Frank, Cee and Frank's lover, Lily. It hops from present to past, and from interior to exterior perspectives. Despite this narrative democracy, Home is really Frank's story. Both siblings experience a rite-of-passage but Cee's inner transformation is dealt with relatively briskly. She speaks, by the end, in generic phrases, as a woman whose consciousness has been raised ("I'm not going to hide from what's true just because it hurts).

Her back-story is predictable – a girl marooned in a small town and made timid by her grandmother's bullying – but it takes an unexpected turn after her marriage breaks down. She becomes a domestic servant to a doctor who asks Cee, on their first meeting, whether she has "had children or been with a man". Cee does not pick up on his tone or his dubious conduct, though Morrison makes his sinister intentions glaringly clear. Studying the doctor's books on race and heredity, Cee "promised herself she would find time to read about and understand 'eugenics'." Sadly, this potentially macabre and fabular subplot is left under-developed by a writer who would normally have woven its threads richly.

The surprise of the final few chapters is the emergence of a split voice within Frank that sounds like transgressive meta-fiction. These are brief flashes in which Frank assumes a voice that exists beyond Morrison's control, and directly challenges the author. "I don't think you know much about love. Or me", he concludes, and later advises her of an earlier lie: "You can keep on writing, but I think you ought to know what's true."

This could be evidence of Frank's further fracturing, a sense of a self dividing in two, or it might be a character's rebellion against his creator. These challenges are flecks, tacked on to passages, yet they are also signature-marks of Morrison's stylistic audacity. It is not simply that they puncture the suspension of disbelief. They are potent, angry.

Before writing Beloved, which was based on the true story of Margaret Garner, a mother who murdered her daughter to save her from slavery, Morrison saw a vision of the child: "She walked out of the water, climbed the rocks, and leaned against the gazebo. Nice hat. So she was there from the beginning, and except for me, everybody (the characters) knew it." Frank's mutinous commentary leaves the reader thrilled. We are on classic Morrison terrain which could go anywhere, from the real to the supernatural to the mythic; but the confrontation is momentary, and goes nowhere at all.

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