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.

Arts and Entertainment
Tate Modern chief Chris Dercon, who will be leaving to run a Berlin theatre company
arts
Arts and Entertainment
Tasos: 'I rarely refuse an offer to be photographed'
arts + ents
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Girls on the verge of a nervous breakdown: Florence Pugh and Maisie Williams star in 'The Falling'
Film
Arts and Entertainment
Legendary charm: Clive Owen and Keira Knightley in 2004’s ‘King Arthur’
FilmGuy Ritchie is the latest filmmaker to tackle the legend
Arts and Entertainment
Corporate affair: The sitcom has become a satire of corporate culture in general

TV review

Broadcasting House was preparing for a visit from Prince Charles spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
tvReview: There are some impressive performances by Claire Skinner and Lorraine Ashbourne in Inside No. 9, Nana's Party spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Glastonbury's pyramid stage

Glastonbury Michael Eavis reveals final headline act 'most likely' British pair

Arts and Entertainment
Ewan McGregor looks set to play Lumiere in the Beauty and the Beast live action remake

Film Ewan McGregor joins star-studded Beauty and the Beast cast as Lumiere

Arts and Entertainment
Charlie feels the lack of food on The Island with Bear Grylls

TV

The Island with Bear Grylls under fire after male contestants kill and eat rare crocodile
Arts and Entertainment
Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Quicksilver and Elizabeth Olsen as Scarlet Witch, in a scene from Avengers: Age Of Ultron
filmReview: A great cast with truly spectacular special effects - but is Ultron a worthy adversaries for our superheroes? spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Ince performing in 2006
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
Beth (played by Jo Joyner) in BBC1's Ordinary Lies
tvReview: There’s bound to be a second series, but it needs to be braver spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Hollywood and Mary Berry, the presenters of The Great Comic Relief Bake Off 2015

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A still from Harold Ramis' original Groundhog Day film, released in 1993

Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Christopher Eccleston (centre) plays an ex-policeman in this cliché-riddled thriller

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey looks very serious as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

TV This TV review contains spoilers
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Wiz Khalifa performs on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park in Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment
Festival-goers soak up the atmosphere at Glastonbury

music

Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars creator George Lucas

film

Arts and Entertainment

music

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

    Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
    Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

    Aviation history is littered with grand failures

    But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

    Fortress Europe?

    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
    Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

    Never mind what you're wearing

    It's what you're reclining on that matters
    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
    How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

    How to survive a Twitter mauling

    Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
    Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

    At dawn, the young remember the young

    A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

    Follow the money as never before

    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

    Samuel West interview

    The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
    General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence