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No Sweet 'Home'

Robinson's new novel deals with the harder side of life in Gilead.
by Marilynne Robinson
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, September 2008
325 pp., $25

When Marilynne Robinson released Gilead in 2004, she won praise for writing her profound tale of a minister's life so carefully that her readers were forced to slowly consider every sentence. That same gift is used masterfully in her new novel, Home, providing radically different insights into the characters and much of the storyline she used there.

In Home, Robinson focuses again on the story of Jack Boughton's return to the town of Gilead, this time setting it in the multigenerational Boughton family household and telling it through the eyes of Jack's youngest sister, Glory. Jack, the black sheep of the family, hasn't been home since he committed the most egregious crime of his truant adolescence 20 years ago. Since then, his father, Robert, has lost his wife, his congregation, and his health, and his concern over the whereabouts and spiritual health of his son is wearing him down even further. Glory has recently moved back home to care for her father, having attempted to make a life for herself elsewhere and seen it end in crushing failure.

Much as the plot line of a wayward son returning home sounds like a retelling of the prodigal son parable, those who have read Gilead know that this is far more than a familiar Bible story with the details filled in. Robert Boughton is a loving father who yearns for his lost son and is overjoyed to see him come back, but Jack is not the prodigal son of the parable. Jack does not come seeking forgiveness and reconciliation, and his father's welcoming embrace cannot solve all the problems in this story.

Jack is such a dense mess of brokenness, despair, and concealed motives that it is hard to know exactly what he hopes for, if anything. No doubt he is a tormented soul. He never felt at home with his family as a child, he can't affirm what his staunchly Presbyterian family believes, and everything he touches seems to turn toward destruction sooner or later. It's hard for both Glory and the reader to know what to do with him. But this is part of Robinson's brilliance: even if there were no other praiseworthy aspects of Home, exploring the complexities of Jack's character would make it worth reading. Trying to understand him affords a large part of the pleasure of reading this novel.

Robinson certainly took a risk in turning the same characters, setting, and story of one novel to the same purpose in a second. Those who hoped for the reminiscences of a wise old pastor that Gilead's narrator, the Rev. John Ames, provided will be disappointed. Glory's perspective does not have the same wisdom as Ames's, nor does it carry the same balance of life's sadnesses and joys. Then again, it shouldn't. Ames was looking back on his hardest times, while Glory is living them. And while Ames's novel offered more pithy maxims, it's possible that Glory's perspective gives the reader more food for thought.

This novel is written to mimic the way one's internal monologue functions, and Robinson uses that form to take full advantage of the uncomfortably compact setting of the Boughton home. Jack, Glory, Robert , and sometimes Ames step on each other's toes every time they turn around, forcing them to confront everything they would rather keep out of conversations. In this tense atmosphere, Glory knows and notices much more than Ames did. She gives proper weight to every little action, every word choice, and every subtext. Through Glory's stark truthfulness and tendency to "take things too much to heart," Robinson is able to wrestle with the darker side of making a home in Gilead, something Ames's softer touch and lack of insight into the Boughton household could not.

Robinson does manage to wax philosophical through Glory's perspective at times, and at one point in the novel, Glory thinks about "how the soul could be put at ease, restored. At home. But the soul finds its own home if it ever has a home at all." Robinson is putting forth her definition of home here, and her theories about the connection between home and the soul prompt many of the questions this novel bears.

The Boughton household fails to be home the way Robinson defines it. It is not a refuge for the soul for either Glory or Jack; it is too full of memory to be completely restful or forgiving. Glory says it is inhabited by a "palpable darkness." And yet both children claim it, in a sense, as an incredibly meaningful place. Jack gravitates toward the Boughton home even though he feels he does not belong to it, while Glory clings to this home even though she can picture no darker future for herself than settling into a life there again. It both is and isn't what Robinson says home should be. And she leaves it at that.

Robinson raises similar questions about family. Try as they might, the Boughtons cannot seem to keep from hurting each other. "She wished it mattered more that the three of them loved one another. Or mattered less, since guilt and disappointment seemed to batten on love." No matter what they do, no matter how many overtures of goodwill they make to each other, the family members are powerless to make anything right among themselves. Glory and Jack manage to grow closer throughout the novel, but complete restoration is beyond them. And yet every little thing they say to each other and do for each other is undeniably crucial. Are humans powerful or powerless to meet each other's needs?

Robinson gently tears apart everything that Glory, and the reader, hold dear. "What does home mean?" she makes her characters ask. Of what worth is family? Where do we actually belong? Can we ever belong anywhere?

Home is not a reiteration of the "everything is meaningless" chant. As hard as it is to read about a family suffering together and largely because of each other, the purposefulness of Robinson's writing and story pushes the reader to keep at it. But human brokenness and insufficiency are the focus of the novel, and Robinson sees them everywhere.

Home does not afford the reader the same restful pleasure Gilead did. Human misery and humanity's inability to fix itself provide so much of the impetus for this novel that the reader is pained by it as well. But Robinson touches on intrinsic parts of human experience so skillfully that her newest novel, and the thought it provokes afterwards, are well worth the effort.

Casey Rath is an editorial intern at Where magazine in San Francisco.

Related Elsewhere:

Home can be purchased at Amazon.com and other book retailers. Books & Culture also reviewed Home.

Christianity Today has other book reviews on a section of our website.

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