Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 17 September 2014

Home from the war, but how does his country repay his patriotism?

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.

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 10th 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."

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 narration is split between Frank, his sister, 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.

Cee's 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.

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."

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