Morrison’s grand themes Rescue from within, without is central to ‘Home’

HOME. By Toni Morrison. Knopf. 147 pages. $24.

The classic Toni Morrison story is nostalgic, carrying the pain from an old wound, whether a longing for what’s been lost (Sethe’s baby in “Beloved” or Milkman’s family history in “Song of Solomon”), or a pang for what never was or never can be.

Morrison pairs this universal throb with a voice that often soars out of the everyday register into prophesy and poetry. “Home,” her latest, is a more streamlined and less rhapsodic work, closer to Aesop than to Sophocles.

Still, it carries forward the story Morrison has been telling all these years: one of dispossession and reclamation, of leave-taking and homecoming, of true and false environments.

There is always a lot to face in a Morrison plot, and the measure of a person usually rests on how honestly he or she confronts the truth and acts on it.

As one character tells another in “Home,” “Look to yourself. You free. Nothing and nobody is obliged to save you but you.”

Rescue from within and without is central to “Home.” Morrison’s protagonist, Frank Money, is a demobilized Korean War vet who is in a Chicago mental ward as the novel opens. His crimes are vagrancy, violence and bad dreams. Money went to war as an alternative to life in Lotus, Ga., a place “worse than any battlefield.”

Back on the home front, he realizes there’s no place worse than a battlefield. Bad as the humiliations to a black man in 1950s America are, the remembered faces and voices of his Korean War interval are worse.

Money is an unlikely hero and seems hardly up to the task when he gets an urgent message: His sister, Cee, will die in Georgia if he doesn’t come quickly to save her.

Cee also has escaped Lotus, a place whose unrecognized beauty eventually will heal brother and sister. A runaway bride at 14, Cee was the victim of eugenic experiments in Atlanta and nearly didn’t make it home.

Morrison quickly and predictably wraps up her novel. Brother and sister vagrants return home, discover a purpose in communal life (in this case a circle of women that teaches, “You good enough for Jesus. That’s all you need to know”), and uncover a secret from their past.

“Home” doesn’t measure up to “Beloved” or even “A Mercy,” Morrison’s fantastic 2008 novel, but it does offer gorgeous little shivers of language and a hint of Morrison’s grand themes.

Reviewer Catherine Holmes, an English instructor at the College of Charleston