‘And here is the world, she thought, just as we left it. A hot white sky and a soft wind, a murmur among the trees, the treble rasp of a few cicadas. There were acorns in the road, some of them broken by passing cars. Chrysanthemums were coming into bloom. Yellowing squash vines swamped the vegetable gardens and tomato plants hung from their stakes, depleted with bearing. Another summer in Gilead. Gilead, dreaming out its curse of sameness, somnolence. How could anyone want to live here? That was the question they asked one another, out of their father’s hearing, when they came back from college, or from the world. Why would anyone stay here?’
Home, Marilynne Robinson, Pg.293
After finishing Marilynne Robinson’s second novel, Gilead, published in 2004, I couldn’t wait much longer to read her third, and most recent novel, Home, which transports us back to the fictional town of Gilead in Iowa. Set almost identically in the same time period as Gilead, Home touches more on the life of the Boughton family – Glory and Jack (John Ames) Boughton, to be particular. Both siblings have, for reasons of their own, ended up back in the family home despite attempts to make a life for themselves elsewhere. At the same time, their Presbyterian minister father, Robert Boughton, is weak and frail with old age. His last remaining wish is to see the prodigal son who abandoned his family for twenty years.
‘There is a saying that to understand is to forgive, but that is an error, so Papa used to say. You must forgive in order to understand. Until you forgive, you defend yourself against the possibility of understanding’.
Home, Marilynne Robinson, Pg.46-7
As we find out in Gilead, Jack Boughton was a troubled and troublesome young child who was at odds with his surroundings in small-town Iowa. Since flunking out of college and leaving home, Jack continues to battle with his demons. When he finally returns, after a twenty-year silence, his failure is evident. Glory, his younger sister and whose perspective Home is narrated from, has also returned to care for their dying father. She, too, is fleeing her own mistakes in life. The result is a devastatingly unforgettable novel about families and the power of secrets to tear apart or bring them closer together. As the above quote shows, Robert Boughton is the master of forgiveness. Only through forgiveness is he then open to understanding the actions of his children.
Despite the disgrace Jack brought on the family in his youth, Boughton has always found a sadness in him: ‘I just never knew another child who didn’t feel at home in the house where he was born. […] I always felt it was sadness I was dealing with, a sort of heavyheartedness’. But as we learn, from one of the many intimate moments between Glory and her brother, Jack was never far from home as a child. Despite feeling a separateness from his family, Jack would often stay on the outskirts of family life. I found this image even more poignant because there is a willingness in Jack – and there always has been – to try and conform or fit in with the Boughton’s. This desire to feel at home, whether in Gilead or anywhere else in the world, seems to haunt him for the majority of his life. Only when there is no hope left for him does he finally resign himself to a sad sort of peace:
‘It seemed to her there was a peacefulness about him that came with resignation, with the extinction of that last hope, like a perfect humility undistracted by the possible, the unrealised, the yet to be determined. He worked on the DeSoto, then sat in the porch and read til the sun went down. He went out for a stroll, just to look at the place, he said, and came back in an hour, stone sober. It may have been the saddest day of her life, one of the saddest of his. And yet, all in all, it wasn’t a bad day’.
Home, Marilynne Robinson, Pg.322
I have deliberately excluded some of the sadder moments in the book as I didn’t want to give away the plot (although most of what we know already comes from Gilead). However, unlike Gilead, Home appears to be more political and direct in its focus. There are many references to the news and the civil rights movement, which was gaining momentum during the period this book focuses on. There are also instances where Glory, in the third-person narrative, comments on and critiques a society that is extremely patriarchal in its formation:
‘She seemed always to have known that, to their father’s mind, the world’s great work was the business of men, of gentle, serious men well versed in Scripture and eloquent at prayer, or, in any case, ordained in some reasonably respectable denomination. They were the stewards of ultimate things. Women were creatures of a second rank, however pious, however beloved, however honoured’.
Home, Marilynne Robinson, Pg.21
Having gained a master’s degree and taught in a respectable school, Glory’s story of how she ended up back where she started out in life is almost as sad as Jack’s. It is painstakingly evident that she is a victim of her sex and that, had she lived a couple of decades later, her circumstances may be different.
Marilynne Robinson’s third novel, like her first two, gained immediate success and was the winner of the 2009 Orange Prize (now the Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction). It is a beautifully sad and poignant novel about the familiar, yet unnerving, effects of returning home and a wonderfully intimate insight into the painful, yet powerful, experience of familial love. I would highly recommend Home, as well as Robinson’s other novels. In my opinion she is one of the greatest writers around today and I look forward to her new novel, which encompasses the world of Gilead one more time, due for release this autumn.