By Marilynne Robinson
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 336 pp., $25
Home is the place where, when you have to go there,
They have to take you in.
--Robert Frost, “The Death of the Hired Man”
Everything that Frost packed into that wry aphorism – need, obligation, exploitation, resistance, resentment – Marilynne Robinson unpacks in her magisterial, breath-stealing new novel, “Home.” Everything and more, for Robinson also ventures into such difficult topics as love and faith.
These are difficult topics for fiction not only because they can betray writers into sentimentality, but also because so much of the drama of fiction depends on hatred and doubt. As Milton discovered, Satan inevitably gets all the best lines. Yet the drama in Robinson’s novel consists of the struggle of good people to love and believe in one another and at least to make the attempt to believe in God.
Glory Boughton has come home to Gilead, Iowa, to look after her father, Robert, an elderly Presbyterian minister in his last days. Before long, word comes that her brother Jack will be joining them. Neither Glory nor her father has seen Jack for 20 years, since he left Gilead in disrepute; he even failed to return for his mother’s funeral.
Glory is the novel’s central consciousness – the third-person narration sticks to her point of view – and she has secrets of her own that she’s hesitant to share with her father and her brother. But during the weeks of his visit in the summer of 1956, she will share her secrets with Jack in order to learn some of his own. The novel is a delicate dance of guilt and forgiveness, involving not only the three Boughtons but also Robert’s old friend and fellow minister, John Ames, for whom Jack was named.
Readers of Robinson’s 2004 novel “Gilead,” which won both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle award, will know these characters already. But they won’t know them the way they’re presented in “Home,” which tells essentially the same story about the homecoming of Jack Boughton, but tells it in a new and surprising way. “Gilead” was John Ames’ journal, a testament written for his small son, a profoundly meditative novel. “Home” is meditative, but it’s also a more theatrical novel.
Not “theatrical” in the pejorative sense (that is, florid and overstated) but in the sense that, as in a play, much of the tension and substance of the novel lies in the things the characters say to one another. It’s a novel that takes place on a stage of sorts: the Boughton home, its rooms cluttered with “unreadable books” and furniture in “sour, fierce, dreary black walnut” with “leonine legs and belligerently clawed feet.” The porch is “overgrown by an immense bramble of trumpet vines,” and there is an “empty barn,” “useless woodshed,” “unpruned orchard and horseless pasture.” This is the place that has taken Glory in, a 38-year-old unmarried woman who must by the end of the novel decide whether to let the past – home -- define her for the rest of her life.
But before that, she has to deal with Jack and their father, and with John Ames, who disapproves not only of Jack but also of his father’s willingness to overlook Jack’s transgressions. The novel moves through a series of crises, some of them provoked by Ames’ words and some by Jack’s tendency to adopt an ironic self-distancing that slicks over his underlying desire to be accepted and forgiven. As Glory moves among these characters, she comes to recognize and embrace her kinship with Jack, even though she is ostensibly the most dutiful of the eight Boughton children and he the most prodigal of the sons and daughters.
A moment of almost telepathic recognition of this kinship comes in mid-novel when Jack makes a remark that annoys Glory:
“That was a little flippant, she thought. She went into the kitchen to peel potatoes for a salad.
“After a while he came into the porch and the kitchen and stood by the door.
“ ‘I’m sorry,’ he said.
“ ‘What for?’
“ ‘When we were talking just now. I think I may have seemed – flippant.’
“ ‘No. Not at all.’
“ ‘That’s good,’ he said. ‘I didn’t mean to. I can never be sure.’ Then he went outside again.”
That’s an utterly simple yet impeccably crafted account of the way a casual word or expression or action can ripple seismically through the consciousness of others. And it’s characteristic of Robinson, who has a sensibility attuned to “the intimacy of the ordinary,” to rip one of her own phrases out of its context. She is a writer of rare grace, whose words seem to fall into place as naturally and freshly as raindrops.
Don’t worry if you haven’t read “Gilead,” to which this novel is both companion and complement. You can begin with “Home” and then read the other. But you may be tempted when you finish “Home” just to start over and read it again. It’s that good.