Home by Marilynne Robinson

13/09/08, The Times

Three years after her Pulitzer-winning novel, Gilead, Marilynne Robinson returns to the eponymous town in Iowa with Home, a pendant to the earlier book. Gilead was narrated in the inimitable voice of the elderly Congregationalist pastor, John Ames, and took the form of a letter written to his seven-year-old son, Robert, from a late marriage. Home revisits the same period, the mid-1950s, and centres on the Boughton family, especially on John Ames Boughton (called Jack in the book), the prodigal son of the Presbyterian Reverend Boughton, John Ames’s best friend (and named after him).

After a twenty-year absence, Jack, the bad apple of the Boughton family, has returned home to Gilead, in search of anchorage and salvation. In Gilead, Reverend Ames had feelingly glanced at the agony caused in the life of his closest friend by his troubled, ne’er-do-well son (‘a wound in his father’s heart, a terrible tenderness’). Now Robinson has isolated that skein from the earlier narrative and woven an entire new world out of it. Jack’s visit coincides with the return home of his youngest sister, the thirty-eight-year old Glory, who has come back – permanently, it is implied – to heal from a failed relationship. Together, brother and sister, while looking after their old, infirm, traditionalist father, take the first halting steps towards getting to know and understand each other; they were not close when she was a child and, in any case, he was a stranger, both literal and figurative, to his family. The process is slow, stuttering and repetitive but partially illuminating about the lives they lived elsewhere.

When he was very young, Jack had fathered a child, who later died, by a very young girl. Other misdemeanours, such as alcoholism, an inability to hold down a job, petty thievery, have dogged his entire life. This past is hinted at unremittingly in the book but never fleshed out to the extent that we can begin to care about the fallen Jack. The relentlessness may serve well Robinson’s purpose of illustrating the workings of forgiveness, of hope and redemption, of the healing benediction that is the Christian family, but it makes for an airless and inert book.

Home has neither the spectacular fireworks of the prose of Housekeeping nor the intense luminosity of observation and style that marked Gilead. Instead, its grave and lucid prose is given over to an oppressively intense pondering of the (deeply Christian) souls of its characters and their minutest tickings. Its formidable moral energy is harnessed solely for religious purposes, so much so that the equivalence between morality and Christianity that Robinson implicitly establishes might make it seem the only kind of morality possible. All this pervasive religiosity in the behaviour and conversation of its figures can easily lead a reader to think that the model of good living in such an immersive world of faith is itself the tyranny that Jack struggled to escape and, in the final resort, failed. There is no point outside faith in this book from where leverage could be applied to prise open a different, more liberating meaning of redemption.