Thursday, 5 July 2012

Review: Home by Toni Morrison

Having reached her ninth decade, more than four of which have been spent as a novelist, it is perhaps unsurprising that Toni Morrison has been subject to accusations that she is running out of steam.  However there is still much to be enjoyed in this brief novel, which tells the story of Korean War veteran Frank, who has returned to America and now traverses the country to rescue his sister Cee from an unspecified threat.

Perhaps the most eloquent praise of Morrison’s style came from an unlikely source – a review in Cosmo described Jazz (1992) as 'Shakespeare singing the blues’.  At her best she is as talented a wordsmith as anyone alive, demonstrated perhaps most clearly in her Nobel lecture where she reflected on language itself: ‘Language can never "pin down" slavery, genocide, war. Nor should it yearn for the arrogance to be able to do so. Its force, its felicity is in its reach toward the ineffable’.

With this in mind, the problem with Home is perhaps that we never truly make that reach.  This is a small story told very well, of a brother and sister and their self-realisation, which as in other Morrison novels (and American literature more broadly) is intricately bound up in place (hence the title) and in other people.  Morrison’s gentle prose carries us through to the conclusion in no time, but without ever moving us the way she previously has.

That is not to say there are not elegant touches to the novel.  Enigmatic chapters in italics are dispersed throughout the novel, where Frank vies with his narrator for control of the story: ‘Earlier you wrote about how sure I was that the beat-up man on the train to Chicago would turn around when they got home and whip the wife who tried to help him. Not true’.  These interludes, like the novel itself, are not quite followed through, but they illuminate a pivotal issue within Morrison’s writings – so often she seeks to write on behalf of those who have been silenced and forgotten by history, but here she shows a humility as to her right to do so, and hints at a deeper anxiety about her own role as a storyteller.

This desire to speak for the silenced is also reflected in another element of the novel – twice characters are mentioned disparagingly in passing, Frank’s recent lover, and his ‘cruel’ grandmother.  Later, incongruously given they do not interact with either protagonist throughout the story, they are given their own chapters, relegating Frank and Cee to the margins.  Neither narrative is concluded, but again we are gently reminded that even the stories of the marginalised have margins of their own.

Thus this is not a great novel, but it is undoubtedly a very good one.  Ironically for what might be the last work of such a long career it leaves the reader desperate for more, but luckily if this is your first experience of Morrison there is a whole back catalogue to explore.

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