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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 (mwn52@aol.com) on January 22, 2011

Home
by Marilynne Robinson

  • Publication Date: September 2, 2008
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Hardcover: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
  • ISBN-10: 0374299102
  • ISBN-13: 9780374299101