Toni Morrison is an American institution; not only a remarkable prose poet and winner of numerous awards, but wielder of a genuine literary conscience, especially in a time when so many American novelists have retreated into the safety of irony and approximation. She not only has something to say, but, more importantly, she has people who will listen. She’s not only written some great books but she’s written a few nearly indisputable classics.
Home, her new novel, largely concerns itself with Frank Money, a disturbed African-American Korean War veteran and his younger sister, Ycodra, better known as Cee. Back from the war and prone to alcoholic derangements of a violent nature, Frank embarks on a 1950s odyssey from the west coast back home to Lotus, Georgia. Cee, he has been told, is dying.
From here, Morrison parcels out insights into Frank’s present and past, the present and past of his current lover, Lily, his sister, Cee, and quite a few secondary characters. In doing so, she feigns towards gothic horror, war horror and social realism horror, without ever really finding a home in any of these genres. You can see the bones of a powerful intergenerational novel or two poking out all over the place – but what we have is, sadly, far too short (Home is only 145 pages long) and too sketchy.
The book isn’t so much inhabited by characters as case studies. Each and every one feels like an excuse for the author to make a point, to explore this or that historical tragedy, to make sure we stand witness. Each character checks off another instance of pre-civil rights era racism, be it the insidious bureaucratic restrictions preventing African-Americans from making their homes in certain neighbourhoods to murder.
In a heavy-handed way, Home explores the issues of just what kind of home America was, and is, for African-Americans; and how horrible it is to read about an innocent African-American child being shot in 1950s Chicago at the same time as the US media, some 60 years later, is aflame over the case of Trayvon Martin, a high-school junior shot dead in Florida.
There are flashes of humour and beauty here as well and to her credit Morrison can still control her voice like an instrument to deliver a unique American rhythm: “It was so bright, brighter than he remembered. The sun, having sucked away the blue from the sky, loitered there in the white heaven, menacing Lotus, torturing its landscape, but failing, constantly failing to silence it: children still laughed, ran, shouted their games; women sang in their backyards while pinning wet sheets on clotheslines; occasionally a soprano was joined by a neighbouring alto or a tenor just passing by. ‘Take me to the water. Take me to the water. Take me to the water. To be baptised’.”
Unfortunately, these moments are few and far between. Instead, beset by atrocity after atrocity, the characters are deprived of the chance to settle down and breathe without constantly having to suffer their creator’s nefarious intentions.
You don’t know much about me, Frank Money insists. And though you know Morrison wrote that, you get the sense that Money was on to something.