In the case of a writer less gifted and more commercially driven than Marilynne Robinson, it would be tempting to conclude that HOME, set in the mid-1950s in the same small Iowa town as her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel GILEAD, represented a mercenary attempt to capitalize on the well-deserved honors accorded that book. Instead, she has accomplished the feat of reintroducing the characters of GILEAD from a fresh perspective, with a grace and wisdom that will deepen the understanding of readers of that novel and send those who first encounter her creations in this book back to its predecessor.
Unlike GILEAD, narrated by the aging Congregationalist minister John Ames in a series of letters to his seven-year-old son, HOME is written in the third-person, the story told through the sensitive, observant eyes of Glory, the youngest of eight siblings in the family of Robert Boughton, the Presbyterian minister of Gilead and a close friend, if occasional religious antagonist, to Ames.
Fresh from the failure of a lengthy relationship that damaged her both emotionally and financially, Glory, in her late 30s, has returned to the longtime family home, “this place of solemn and perpetual evening,” to attend to her dying father. Into their lives returns her brother Jack, estranged from the family for some 20 years, after fleeing Gilead on the heels of fathering an illegitimate child who later dies. Jack (the godson and namesake of Reverend Ames) is the family renegade, “so conspicuously not good as to cast a shadow over their household,” a recovering alcoholic who has drifted through a life of petty crime and dead end jobs. But in an essential way, Glory seems able to identify with Jack’s struggles because of the way her life, too, has run aground in midstream. “Neither one of us would be here if we weren’t in some kind of --- difficulty,” she concedes.
The three Boughtons tentatively engage each other again in the family homestead, as Robinson expertly sketches what she calls “the intimacy of the ordinary.” Jack tends to household chores, reclaiming a garden patch and restoring an ailing DeSoto. Glory anxiously eyes her brother, her thoughts balanced between the fragile hope that he’s capable of making a new start and her fear of the consequences of a relapse into his old ways. Reverend Boughton’s pleasure at this son’s return slowly seeps away as he and Jack realize they must struggle toward a reconciliation unlikely to occur.
The narrative is tightly focused, almost microscopic in its attention to detail, and there’s little in the way of dramatic action to move the plot forward. But Robinson builds tension by slowly peeling away layers to reveal enduring truths about the themes that animate both Gilead novels: the often fraught relationships between fathers and sons, the stain of racial intolerance on American life, and the rewards of religious faith and its sometime stern demands. While grounded in 1950s Middle America, the narrative exudes a feeling of timelessness, echoing biblical stories (Abraham and Ishmael, David and Absalom) sometimes explicitly discussed and other times only recognizable in the shadows.
Marilynne Robinson’s work is rewarding as much for the elegant simplicity of her prose as it is for the depth and power of her themes. It’s easy to linger over each sentence, chiseled as it is from hard stone. Describing the first time Jack takes the family car, on which he’s lavished hours of attention, out for a drive, she writes, “Jack put his arm out the window, waving his hat like a visiting dignitary, backed into the street and gloated away, gentling the gleaming dirigible through the shadows of arching elm trees, light dropping on it through their leaves like confetti as it made its ceremonious passage.” That same beauty of language is manifest in the intense level of observation Glory trains on Jack. Whether she’s describing “that estrangement of his gaze, that look of urgent calculation, of sharply attentive calm” or the way he appears to her “haggard and probationary, with little of his youth left to him except the wry elusiveness, secretiveness that he did in fact seem to wear on his skin,” there’s a surpassing tenderness in the depiction of one sibling’s love for another.
Explaining her decision, in a recent interview, to return to Gilead, Robinson said, “Those characters were just in my mind --- it was as if I could sense that there was another whole reality I could explore.” There is, as she has demonstrated in this quietly brilliant work.
Reviewed by Harvey Freedenberg (firstname.lastname@example.org) on January 22, 2011