Marilynne Robinson won the Pulitzer Prize in 2004 for Gilead, her second novel, published a full fourteen years after her lauded, name making debut, Housekeeping. Her new book, Home, has just this month been released, and if nothing else, will keep her name firmly cemented among the first rank of contemporary American novelists.
Home is a companion to Gilead, taking place in the same small eponymous Iowa town during the mid-fifties, and involving the same characters. The earlier book was written from the perspective of the aged Reverend John Ames, a Congregationalist preacher, and in the form of a long letter to his very young son. Ames, whose health is failing, means to leave an account of his life and pass on whatever wisdom he will not have a chance to impart in person. The novel is remarkable for the voice in which Ames writes, a voice learned and humble, reminiscent of the diaries of the early American Puritans or of the essays of Ralph Waldo Emerson. But the real power of this considerably powerful book lies in what E. M. Forster called the prophetic aspect of fiction. That is, beyond mere plot, setting, and character, the novel takes as its material history, contemporary social conditions and the experience of religion, its themes resonating on a universal level, speaking simultaneously of the fates of the players in the story and the life of the United States of America in the twentieth century. For in John Ames’ story is the story of his grandfather, a radical abolitionist and associate of John Brown; of his father, an ardent pacifist who nonetheless fought in the Civil War; and of Robert Boughton, Gilead’s Presbyterian minister who is solidly a man of his times, suspicious of the early civil rights agitators in the South he reads about in the papers. The themes of justice, forgiveness, and unconditional love play themselves out in Ames’ account but also run deep and sound ancient echoes.
Home is thematically much different, playing a different set of chords without such vast reverberation and focusing on a single generation, namely the grown children of Reverend Boughton. As its title suggests, Home is about a return to origins. In some ways it is even a return to the original idea of Gilead. In a 2004 profile in the New York Times Magazine, Robinson said she first set out to write “a darkly comic story of a woman ‘abraded’ by her experience of the world,” but that, when it came time to flesh out the minor character of a Congregationalist minister, the voice she created was so compelling she realized it deserved a novel of its own. Home then bears more resemblance to the story of the abraded woman, taking the perspective of Robert Boughton’s youngest daughter Glory, a schoolteacher who has returned to Gilead to care for her frail and ailing father. Glory is simultaneously fleeing a disastrous and humiliating desertion by her long-time fiancé, and is in crisis over her likely future of lonely spinsterhood. At the beginning of the book she is unexpectedly joined by her brother Jack, the family’s prodigal child, a seemingly amoral thief, liar and drunk who brought scandal to the household in his youth, but then disappeared for twenty years. He is now, like Glory, at home to take refuge from a complicated relationship, the details of which will be known to readers of Gilead. Together, Jack and Glory probe a deep question: “Home. What kinder place could there be on earth, and why did it seem to them like exile?”
Jack was a major presence in Gilead, as John Ames, who was the target of much of Jack’s youthful harassment, relates his fears of the influence the charismatic young man may have over Ames’ own young wife and child. Some readers may agree with me that the only underwhelming aspect of reading Gilead was the way that, toward the book’s end, the leisurely Emerson-esque narration had to make more and more concessions to the advancement of the plot, turning Ames’ digressive epistle into more of a diary about his encounters with Jack, even as Jack’s revelations to Ames about the details of his life in the past twenty years allowed the novel to connect more solidly with the social predicament of the time.
Home makes no such concessions, investing the first conversations between Glory and Jack with all the tension one would expect to be present between two people who are each vitally interested in the other’s past, but adamantly protective of their own. What plot there is in Home involves little more than a series of these conversations, sometimes including their father but more often over the kitchen table in hushed tones so as not to wake him. This intensity builds, and Robinson is carefully scrupulous about keeping the progressive disclosures plausible, meaning essentially that the revelations come slowly over hundreds of pages, with Glory, Jack, and their father letting the story take shape in the negative space around their words. The scenes keep at a simmer—only ever threatening to boil over until the near end of the novel, when, of course, they do.
It helps that the words themselves in Home are chosen with unfailing judiciousness. Robinson has both a sharp eye for detail and the skill to render such details so as to heighten the sense of setting and reflect back on the consciousness of the characters, as when Glory describes one of her household companions before Jack enters the scene: ‘The big old radio grew warm and gave off an odor like rancid hair tonic. It reminded her of a nervous salesman. And it made a sullen hiss and sputter if she moved away from it. It was the kind of companion loneliness makes welcome.”
Robinson is also masterful at describing the unique and complex emotions of her characters with astounding precision. Here, Glory puts her best interpretation on the turns her life has taken in the previous months: “She had been so proud of all that, pleased to believe it was providential that she should be here, having herself just tasted the dregs of experience, having been introduced to something bleaker than ordinary failure—it was a sweet providence that sent her home to that scene of utter and endless probity, where earnest striving so predictably yielded success, and Boughton success at that, the kind amenable to being half-concealed by the rigors of yet more earnest striving. Not that she could entirely forget the bitterness of her chagrin, not that she preferred the course her life had taken to the one she had imagined for it. But she did feel she had been rescued from the shame of mere defeat by the good she was able to do her brother.”
What is also remarkable is how intelligent Robinson allows her characters to be. The dialogue is full of apologies, retractions, and reconsiderations, as if the characters were constantly overhearing themselves as well as responding to each other. In fact, reading Home feels much like sitting in on a master class in character development through dialogue.
While in its glacial pace and sustained raw-nerve intensity, Home is sometimes easier to admire than enjoy, its prose and emotional precision make it a novel whose accomplishment it is impossible not to recognize.