Rating: ★★★☆☆ 

Home is a sliver of a story that treads familiar ground, its themes of exile, injustice, violence, redemption and homecoming. The prose is gorgeous in its simplicity and Toni Morrison’s imagery is, as always, evocatively vivid. But while an author of her literary stature always has an impossibly high bar to reach with new work, Home doesn’t only feel like lesser Morrison, it feels incomplete and dispassionate. Gone is the complexity of character, the unrelenting narrative tension and the incisive nuance of her earlier works; it’s as if she quickly loses interest in her own characters. In her 1970 debut The Bluest Eye, Morrison’s greatest achievement was in rendering the heartbreaking ravages of internalized racism. In Song of Solomon, she combined her trademark epic themes with biblical-like violence and twisted love affairs that are lyrical even in their savagery. Home, on the other hand, contains little of the heart and soul that’s so infused within the author’s earlier works, and instead reads like a clutch of archetypal characters exposed to a laundry list of atrocities.

Set in the 1950s, the story revolves around Korean War veteran Frank Money escaping a mental ward to trek from the Pacific Northwest back to Lotus, Georgia (“the worst place in the world”) in response to a cryptic message about his beloved little sister Ycidra (who everyone calls “Cee.”) Within the first few pages, Morrison reveals the dearth of tension that will plague the entirety of the book when the bound-to-his-bed and heavily drugged Frank escapes the institution by simply loosening his restraints and descending an unlocked fire escape without encountering a soul. Despite visceral flashbacks and disturbing hallucinations associated with what, in the modern day, we know to be the post-traumatic stress disorder that so often afflicts combat veterans, Frank’s journey is relatively unencumbered. There’s incredible literary potential in the character of Frank, a mentally-scarred and forgotten vet of what would become known as the Forgotten War and a disenfranchised minority in the pre-Civil Rights USA. But as he crisscrosses the country thanks to aid from a charitable network, and with the occasional metaphysical company of a zoot suit clad apparition, it’s quickly evident that, while we may get inside his head, little will be revealed of Frank’s heart. In fact, Morrison makes the intriguing yet unnecessary decision to splice her third-person chapters with brief first-person interludes in which Frank contradicts the third-person narrator’s seeming omniscience.

Cee is the second most prominent character in the book, and her imperilment acts as the homecoming’s catalyst, but her rescue is enacted as effortlessly as Frank’s asylum escape. After she’s hired to assist a grossly unethical white doctor whose opium-abusing wife insists is “no Dr. Frankenstein,” Cee painfully discovers that her eugenics-obsessed employer is actually more of a Dr. Mengele. But these ancillary characters have no meat on their bones. By cramming so many characters and so much unspeakable violence into so few pages, no depth is given to any particular scene. Home has little to say about violence, racism, mental illness or war other than to urge us to cluck our collective tongue at their horrors.

Side stories focused on Frank’s ex-girlfriend and surly step-grandmother are included to shed more light on Frank’s character and also to highlight different aspects of the concept of “home.” His affluence-oriented ex-girlfriend Lily is unable to buy a house in the neighborhood she wants because of her race, and his wicked step-grandmother Lenore feels that her perfect home is invaded when (as children) Frank, Cee and their displaced parents come to live with her. But in a book that doesn’t crack the 150 page mark (with wide margins), the shift in focus only detracts from the character development of our protagonist, especially since Lily’s chapter essentially points out how little she cared for him and how relieved she was by his PTSD-induced departure.

Morrison’s approach to ruthless violence has always been more moralizing than, say, fellow greatest living American author list-topper Cormac McCarthy, who instead uses the ferocity inherent in humanity to paint a bleak tableau that sheds light on the nihilism of existence. But in past books, Morrison has been able to use that moral reflection on violence to her advantage. In Home, a defiant homeowner is bludgeoned to death with lead pipes by men “both hooded and not,” reproductive organs are mutilated in the name of perverse science and a child prostitute foraging for food has her skull obliterated by a horny soldier’s bullet. But without much sense of connection to any of these glossed-over characters, the obscene brutality enacted upon them simply points an accusatory finger at the concept of evil and offers little insight beyond painstakingly reinforcing that it exists.

But Home remains a novel that can be easily read in one sitting and is written by an American master of the English language. The prose alone manages to enrich the experience of reading an otherwise uninspired book. The breadth of Morrison’s work is so tremendous that every scrap of her storytelling is worth hearing. Unfortunately, Home tells a story we’ve all heard before.

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