A deceptively rich and cumulatively powerful novel.
At the outset, this might seem like minor Morrison (A Mercy, 2008, etc.), not only because its length is borderline novella, but because the setup seems generic. A black soldier returns from the Korean War, where he faces a rocky re-entry, succumbing to alcoholism and suffering from what would subsequently be termed PTSD. Yet perhaps, as someone tells him, his major problem is the culture to which he returns: “An integrated army is integrated misery. You all go fight, come back, they treat you like dogs. Change that. They treat dogs better.” Ultimately, the latest from the Nobel Prize–winning novelist has something more subtle and shattering to offer than such social polemics. As the novel progresses, it becomes less specifically about the troubled soldier and as much about the sister he left behind in Georgia, who was married and deserted young, and who has fallen into the employ of a doctor whose mysterious experiments threaten her life. And, even more crucially, it’s about the relationship between the brother and his younger sister, which changes significantly after his return home, as both of them undergo significant transformations. “She was a shadow for most of my life, a presence marking its own absence, or maybe mine,” thinks the soldier. He discovers that “while his devotion shielded her, it did not strengthen her.” As his sister is becoming a woman who can stand on her own, her brother ultimately comes to terms with dark truths and deep pain that he had attempted to numb with alcohol. Before they achieve an epiphany that is mutually redemptive, even the earlier reference to “dogs” reveals itself as more than gratuitous.A novel that illuminates truths that its characters may not be capable of articulating.