There comes a time in the life of a reader when every new offering from a favourite author is awaited more with trepidation than anticipation. Much as one would wish otherwise, creative powers are as subject to erosion as the hair on our head or tissue from our bones.
It can be argued that no artist produces work at the same standard through his or her creative life, but there is nothing more cruel than a decline that accompanies age. The greater the artist, the more glaring the devolution–think of Satyajit Ray’s last films, or Elvis Presley’s gradual unhinging–even if their output continues to tower above that of the rest of the herd.
With that caveat in place, it is safe to say that if you go looking for the Toni Morrison of Beloved (1987) in her 10th novel, disappointment is inevitable. Look at Home independently–as, of course, any work of art deserves to be considered–and it will simultaneously exhilarate and confound: The first, because the signs of genius are unmistakable, the second because that’s all they remain, signs. Home is a slim book but, because of a misplaced sense of hurry and an eagerness to blur out the inconveniences, it is also a slight book.
Home’s storyline–presaged in the powerful Morrison poem that opens the novel–is simple to the point of being threadbare: African-American soldier Frank Money comes back to the US after the Korean War in the 1950s and, summoned by a cryptic letter that warns of his sister’s imminent demise, undertakes a journey back to their childhood home in the deepest South. It is a road trip that works on multiple levels, allegorical and metaphorical, forcing Frank to encounter sundry do-gooders and cheats and, ultimately, with the searing inner conflict that drives his own self-hatred and what today would be labelled post-traumatic stress disorder.
Morrison fans will find echoes of many of her favourite themes here, from death of dear ones to examinations of freedom, from a celebration of deep, unquestioning and unconditional love to an acceptance of the loss of innocence. The narrative style, too, is familiar: Chapters are broken up by Frank’s own dialogue with the writer, taking the story that much closer to an aural experience.
Where Home falters, though, is in the plotting: It seems Morrison was too eager to touch the epic-sky limits of her story to bother with the details. Frank’s recovery from serious trauma to relative lucidity is the work of a single sentence, for instance. And while his relationship with his sister requires no further elucidation, the chapter devoted to his estranged girlfriend Lily adds little other than textural richness.
Morrison has always demanded an involved reader; here, though, she relies too much on a forgiving one. Home is all heart; I wish it had some flesh and bones as well.
By Toni Morrison
Published by Random House