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Toni Morrison

Chatto and Windus

Pages: 160 Rs. 499

Bits of vintage Morrison fail to lift undercooked narrative

Toni Morrison’s latest novel is occasionally lit up by her genius for lyrical brevity, but the book is hamstrung by its meandering, underdeveloped plot, says Trisha Gupta

Trisha Gupta  2nd Sep 2012

Toni Morrison

ome is an ironic title for a book about deeply dislocated lives. Most of Toni Morrison's better-known books – The Bluest Eye (1970), her first novel; Sula (1973), her second; Beloved (1987), her most famous; A Mercy (2009), the last book she published before this one – have women at their centre. Here the nebulous core of the book is a man. Frank Money ("Women are eager to talk to me when they hear my last name," he says drily) is a black soldier who has returned from fighting in the Korean War – but has no desire to go home to the town he grew up in. Partly because he hates the place ("Lotus, Georgia is the worst place in the world, worse than any battlefield"); partly because his 'homeboys', the childhood  buddies with whom he left to join the army, are both dead – and he is "far too alive to stand before Mike's folks or Stuff's...whatever lie he cooked up about how bravely they died, he could not blame their resentment". It is only a letter telling him that his sister Cee is in grave trouble ("she be dead if you tarry") that finally makes him head back in the direction of Lotus.

Home's narrative alternates between longer chapters in the third person and shorter, italicised chapters in the first person. In the third person we receive a tactile, fitful account of Frank's journey through a segregated 1950s USA, as well as the world seen through the eyes of the women in Frank's life: the girlfriend he has just left, the sister he is going to rescue, the grandmother whose house he was raised in. The first person narrative is in Frank's voice, mapping his own sense of mental breakdown, advising and sometimes correcting the narrator of the third person sections: "Don't paint me as some enthusiastic hero. I had to go but I dreaded it."

As Frank journeys to find Cee, his mind dredges up memories from his childhood and the war, helping to propel him towards self-recognition – and the reader towards a critical understanding of what things might go to make up 'bravery'. "Frank had not been brave before. He had simply done what he was told and what was necessary." But having a friend die in his arms in Korea awakens a disturbing bloodlust. "Now, with Mike gone, he was brave, whatever that meant. There were not enough dead gooks or Chinks in the world to satisfy him. The copper smell of blood no longer sickened him, it gave him appetite." Being 'brave' in a war situation involves terrible, mindless killing – the preservation of self has brutal consequences. Against the chilling brutality of Frank's Korean confessions, Morrison sets up his memory of protecting Cee as a child – a moment that gave him his first sense of being responsible for someone else: "Down deep inside her lived my secret picture of myself – a strong good me...".

The world of Home feels strangely half-hearted, bereft of weight. Home contains the occasional memorable image, but it’s more preliminary sketch than big picture.

orrison provides the barest hint that there might be a link between these two experiences – "I wonder if succeeding at that was the buried seed of all the rest." – but on the whole, Home allows Frank rather uncomplicated redemption. In rescuing Cee (from the clutches of an evil white doctor who has been conducting medical experiments on her) and in returning to the site of his earliest memories, he faces up to the truth about himself. It is an ugly enough revelation, but it comes too late and is dispensed with too soon to leave impact.

Sadly, this is what the book feels like as a whole. Unlike the fully-fleshed out narratives and powerfully present characters that Morrison created in what are to me her most affecting books (The Bluest Eye and Song of Solomon), the world of Home feels strangely half-hearted, bereft of weight.

The writing shares some traits with Morrison's previous works. Race, for example, is never put into words – it is an unspoken truth that emerges from the casual violence described: a couple on a train is attacked for being bold enough to try and buy coffee, an eight-year-old boy has his arm shot off by a rookie cop and his father says it keeps him off the streets. Morrison's abilities as a writer are such that a little can often go a long way – making us imagine the luxuriousness of a flower-printed dress for a girl who's never had one before, or the bitter, hardscrabble world in which a lost car is missed more than an almost-lost granddaughter.

But this telegraphic economy retains little charm when laden with explanatory obviousness: the laboured description of the breakdown of Lily's relationship with Frank: "Complaints grew into one-sided arguments since he wouldn't engage", or Cee's too-quick recovery, framed annoyingly by pat self-analysis: "If she did not respect herself, why should anybody else?"

Home contains the occasional memorable image, but it's more preliminary sketch than big picture.

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