"Home," the latest novel by Toni Morrison, is almost eerie in its timeliness. Set in the 1950s, it does not evoke the martini and pinched-waist nostalgia of "Mad Men." Rather, it calls to mind the plight of today's veterans returning from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
The novel's hero, Frank Money, returns from the Korean War to little fanfare. As Frank reflects, "They knew about Korea, but not understanding what it was about didn't give it the respect - the seriousness ... it deserved."
As we watch this damaged man try to find his way back into society, it is impossible not to think of the men and women who wear the uniform today. But this is not the only matter taken up by this powerful novel. A hallmark of Morrison's magic is the way that her imagination engages critically with several subjects simultaneously, but "Home" is particularly intriguing because it also seems to be a reflection on the author's previous works.
The plot of "Home" is a standard one in American literature. Frank Money returns home from the war suffering from a mysterious psychiatric ailment that today we could call post-traumatic stress disorder, but in the 1950s had no name. Not only does Frank return to a country that is racist in general, but he must travel to the Jim Crow South to rescue his sister, Cee.
Although the plot is straightforward, even familiar, Morrison embellishes this template with characters who manage to be at once idiosyncratic and realistic. The writing reads like a love letter to a generation that took the English language, lubricated its syntax and bent meanings as the situation required. A letter reading "She be dead" is interpreted "She's alive but sick, very sick."
The result is not poetry, exactly, yet the characters communicate in such a way that there are subtle metaphors in every exchange. The events of this narrative are striking and arresting in the manner that one expects from Morrison, the only living American Nobel laureate in literature. Family secrets are revealed; brutal truths about the history of race in America are displayed without sentimentality or animus. As always, Morrison's prose is immaculate, jaw-dropping in its beauty and audacity.
Despite the ways in which "Home" meets our expectations, the book represents new ground for Morrison. "Home" is riddled with allusions to Morrison's other novels. When Money awakens in a mental institution, shell-shocked and hallucinating, there is an echo of the insane veteran Shadrack of "Sula," who is also haunted by the memory of a little girl. There is a reference to "women who loved mean," reminding the reader of the mother in "The Bluest Eye" who hates not sick children, but sickness itself. And finally, there is a set of human bones, recalling Pilate, the mysterious heroine of "Song of Solomon." and her knapsack of bones.
At the heart of each of Morrison's novels is a love story. Often, as in "Sula," she writes about the love between female friends, and in "Song of Solomon" she explores the passion between men who are like brothers. At the heart of "Home" is the relationship between Frank and his sister, Cee. Franks wonders if "maybe his life had been preserved for Cee, which was only fair since she had been his original caring-for, a selflessness without gain or emotional profit."
For Cee, Frank returns to Lotus, Ga., the home of the title. Cee is in need of rescue and for this he must face his demons. As Frank himself says, "Don't paint me as some enthusiastic hero. I had to go, but I dreaded it."
In addition to her reputation for gorgeous sentences, Morrison is known for a certain brutality in her plotting, and this wrenching novel is no exception. But "Home" also brims with affection and optimism. The gains here are hard won, but honestly earned, and sweet as love.