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
'Banksy Does New York' Film - 2014

Art Somebody is going around telling people he's Banksy - but it isn't the street artist

Arts and Entertainment
Woody Allen and Placido Domingo will work together on Puccini's Schicchi

Theatre

Arts and Entertainment
The sixteen celebrities taking part in The Jump 2015

TV

Arts and Entertainment
British author Helen Macdonald, pictured with Costa book of the year, 'H is for Hawk'
booksPanel hail Helen Macdonald's 'brilliantly written, muscular prose' in memoir of a grief-stricken daughter who became obsessed with training a goshawk
Arts and Entertainment
Tom DeLonge has announced his departure from Blink-182

music
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
In the picture: Anthony LaPaglia and Martin Freeman in 'The Eichmann Show'

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Kirkbride and Bill Roache as Deirdre and Ken Barlow in Coronation Street

tvThe actress has died aged 60
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Marianne Jean-Baptiste defends Joe Miller in Broadchurch series two

tv
Arts and Entertainment
The frill of it all: Hattie Morahan in 'The Changeling'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny may reunite for The X Files

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
TV
News
A young woman punched a police officer after attending a gig by US rapper Snoop Dogg
people
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Arts and Entertainment

Academy criticised after no non-white actors nominated

Arts and Entertainment
Damian Lewis shooting a scene as Henry VIII in Wolf Hall
TV

Arts and Entertainment
A history of violence: ‘Angry, White and Proud’ looked at the rise of far-right groups

tv

An expose of hooliganism masquerading as an ideological battle

Arts and Entertainment

art

Lee Hadwin can't draw when he's awake, but by night he's an artist

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Keaton in the 1998 Beetlejuice original

film

Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TV

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.

    Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

    Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
    Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
    Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

    Comedians share stories of depression

    The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
    Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

    Has The Archers lost the plot?

    A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
    English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

    14 office buildings added to protected lists

    Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee
    World War Z author Max Brooks honours WW1's Harlem Hellfighters in new graphic novel

    Max Brooks honours Harlem Hellfighters

    The author talks about race, legacy and his Will Smith film option to Tim Walker
    Why the league system no longer measures up

    League system no longer measures up

    Jon Coles, former head of standards at the Department of Education, used to be in charge of school performance rankings. He explains how he would reform the system
    Valentine's Day cards: 5 best online card shops

    Don't leave it to the petrol station: The best online card shops for Valentine's Day

    Can't find a card you like on the high street? Try one of these sites for individual, personalised options, whatever your taste
    Diego Costa: Devil in blue who upsets defences is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

    Devil in blue Costa is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

    The Reds are desperately missing Luis Suarez, says Ian Herbert
    Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

    Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

    Former one-day coach says he will ‘observe’ their World Cup games – but ‘won’t be jumping up and down’
    Greece elections: In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza

    Greece elections

    In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza, says Patrick Cockburn
    Holocaust Memorial Day: Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears

    Holocaust Memorial Day

    Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears over Europe
    Fortitude and the Arctic attraction: Our fascination with the last great wilderness

    Magnetic north

    The Arctic has always exerted a pull, from Greek myth to new thriller Fortitude. Gerard Gilbert considers what's behind our fascination with the last great wilderness