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Last updated: May 19, 2012 12:27 am
Home, by Toni Morrison, Chatto & Windus, RRP£12.99/Knopf, RRP$24, 147 pages
According to Toni Morrison, in the US “American means white”. Her conviction that it should mean black too has been the driving force in a body of work that has won her a Nobel Prize in Literature. Her characteristic melding of myth and the supernatural with historical realism is not to everyone’s taste – and nor is her occasionally overtly poetic prose style. But in her homeland she is a hallowed chonicler of the African-American experience – part sage, part bard, and part mouthpiece.
The not-fully American protagonist in her latest novel, Home, is Frank Money, a black soldier who has returned from the Korean war with post-traumatic stress disorder and no prospects. While in the army he might have been American enough to risk his life for his country, back home he is no war hero but just a second-class citizen on the wrong side of segregation once again. As a pastor who Frank turns to for help puts it: “An integrated army is integrated misery.” This might be the early 1950s but Morrison specialises in making modern parallels inescapable: Frank’s experience is little different, she hints, to that of returnees from Iraq and Afghanistan today.
Frank’s response to his treatment is to drink and indulge in “free-floating rage, the self-loathing disguised as somebody else’s fault”; during these bouts he smashes things, shouts and accosts strangers. Then a letter arrives with a warning about his sister Cee that gives him purpose: “Come fast, she be dead if you tarry.” He escapes the mental hospital where he has been confined and sets out to cross the country from top to bottom and save her from this unnamed peril.
As Frank’s old-fashioned quest narrative unfolds Morrison lays out his past along the way. His bus and train odyssey takes him towards his childhood town of Lotus, Georgia, “the worst place in the world”. Memories float up of a boyhood of hard-scrabble poverty and lovelessness where his parents’ affection was “like a razor – sharp, short and thin” and of the grandmother who looked after Frank and Cee when their parents were in the cotton and fruit fields and who was little short of an ogre. The only consolation for brother and sister was in each other.
Frank escaped Lotus by joining the army and Cee by marrying the first man she came across, who promptly abandoned her. Her subsequent search for a job has taken her to Dr Beauregard Scott, an elderly white physician with a gentle mien but an unhealthy interest in gynaecology. He also keeps books about eugenics on his shelves that, because Cee doesn’t understand the word, fail to set alarm bells ringing.
This is a short novel but nevertheless it can’t quite decide what it wants to be and flicks between war story (complete with Frank’s shame about what he did in Korea), a Steinbeckian tale of impoverishment, a fable of racism and a thriller. Morrison also inserts monologues in which Frank addresses himself and, in an ill-advised, metafictional way, the author – “I don’t think you know much about love. Or me”, he tells her.
It almost works but there is also something too familiar about Morrison’s themes: the Korean war may not be as well covered as Vietnam but soldiers watching helplessly as their friends die are stock-in-trade, while Frank’s own journey to redemption and the tough-love black women who gather round the stricken Cee are the stuff of cliché. If some episodes are tired, other more interesting ones simply appear and disappear without adding to the story. At one point Frank gets off the train to stretch his legs at an unscheduled stop in the middle of nowhere and still manages to find an abusive pimp to punch half to death before getting back on the train.
There is no doubting Morrison’s seriousness of intent but earnestness outweighs art and as a result Home is full of cracks.
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