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A Novel

by Marilynne Robinson

Home by Marilynne Robinson
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  • First Published:
    Sep 2008, 336 pages
    Sep 2009, 336 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Amy Reading

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About this Book



Novel. A moving and healing book about families, family secrets, and the passing of the generations

I simply could not get Gilead out of my head after I read it. Neither, apparently, could Marilynne Robinson, so she wrote it all over again from another character's perspective, even replaying some of the same scenes from a different corner of the room.

The story at the heart of both books is Jack Boughton's return to Gilead, Iowa, after twenty painful years of self-exile, and the way his presence deeply unsettles two families, his own and that of his father's best friend, John Ames. Jack sinned mightily in his youth when he took up and then discarded a poor young girl in Gilead, leaving her to care for the child that resulted from their union, and it is almost as if Jack decided out of a certain twisted integrity to live the rest of his life in fealty to the dissipation he demonstrated at such an early age. He walks out on his family and leaves them, twisting on the spear of their love for him, to wonder if he is even still alive, until the day he simply walks back through the door.

Gilead is told from Ames's perspective, unfolding as a series of letters the aged reverend writes to his young son, and is thus completely confined to Ames' first-person narration and the idiosyncrasies of his spiritual yearnings. Home, by contrast, is told in free indirect speech, the narrator forever hovering within the mind of Glory, Jack's sister, who has also just slinked back to Gilead after a failed relationship. This shift in narrative strategy allows Robinson to open up the story, elaborate on the dialogue in scenes that Reverend Ames only sketchily recorded for his son, and shade in her characters. We learn little that is new about the two families in this second go-round, but we inhabit, exquisitely, their smallest recesses of feeling.

Home is not a place of refuge and restoration for Glory and Jack. It is the place to which they limp when they are utterly defeated by the bustling outer world. It is, for Jack in particular, a place in which to keep alive the hope for redemption, though he doesn't share his minister father's beliefs. Home is the place to recapture what he never had. Jack tells Glory, "I've thought about this place so many times. When I was a kid I used to wish I lived here. I used to wish I could just walk in the door like the rest of you did and, you know, sit down at the table and do my homework or something." Robinson writes, "Oh, it was the loneliness that none of them could ever forget, that wry distance, as if there were injury for him in the fact that all of them were native to their life as he never could be." Home is excellent, even if at times too preoccupied and repetitious, at detailing Jack's almost congenital estrangement from his family and their unwavering and agonized loyalty to him.

Even in disgrace, Jack projects an irresistible charm, and I couldn't help but bleed for him as he repeatedly attempts to make peace with his dying father only to enflame old wounds. But to focus on Jack's tortured soul, as so many reviewers have done, is to duplicate an injury that Robinson condemns within the novel—that of overlooking and taking for granted the state of Glory's soul. It is she who comes to know Jack better than anyone in the family, and it is her emotional wisdom that saves him day after day. Because Robinson narrates the action from within Glory's perspective, it is perhaps most accurate to say that Home is the story not of a prodigal son but of a sister's loving, faltering attempt to bring the prodigal son back into the family.

Marilynne Robinson simply cannot write a bad or frivolous sentence, and it is the always engrossing, always stately progress of her language that drives the novel in the absence of a strong plot. You needn't be religious to appreciate the grave beauty of Robinson's beliefs. Just listen to the way her description of a tree grows and takes flight when it becomes animated by her particular spiritual sensuality:

"And there was an old oak tree in front of the house, much older than the neighborhood or the town, which made rubble of the pavement at its foot and flung its imponderable branches out over the road and across the yard, branches whose girths were greater than the trunk of any ordinary tree. There was a torsion in its body that made it look like a giant dervish to them. Their father said if they could see as God can, in geological time, they would see it leap out of the ground and turn in the sun and spread its arms and bask in the joys of being an oak tree in Iowa."

Gilead has so overtaken my mind that I find I cannot independently evaluate Home. If you only read one book by Marilynne Robinson, read Gilead. If you love Gilead, then the very instant you close its cover, open up the pages of Home.

Reviewed by Amy Reading

This review was originally published in September 2008, and has been updated for the September 2009 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.

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