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Thursday, May 26, 2011

Home by Marilynne Robinson

The greatest compliment I can pay Marilynne Robinson upon finishing her second novel about the Ames and Boughton families of Gilead, Iowa is that I would gladly read a third if it should ever be written. Indeed I truly hope that a third novel is being written, even if, as history indicates is possible, it takes Mrs. Robinson twenty-four years to write it.

Home is not a sequel to Gilead but rather a companion to it, taking place at the same time and place, only changing the perspective. Gilead was told through the letters of the elderly Reverend John Ames to his seven-year-old son. Ames’s letters, meant to be read by his son later in life, are written with the intent of telling him about Ames and his family. However, the return of John Ames “Jack” Boughton, his best friend’s son, slowly but surely begins to overtake Ames’s family history as the focus of his letters. The reader picks up on the story largely through intimation. Home tells Jack Boughton’s story through the closer perspective of his youngest sister Glory, home to care for their father, a minister whose health is failing.

At the start of Home, Jack has been gone from Gilead for twenty years, out of touch and sight but never out of mind. His wayward boyhood, culminating in his abandonment of the child he’d fathered with a miserably poor teenage girl. That act of amorality, compounded by the child’s tragically preventable early death, hangs over every interaction in Home. Glory and Reverend Boughton love Jack dearly and are willing to forgive him, but it’s unclear whether he wants their forgiveness or even believes it’s possible that he could be forgiven.

Home is not a novel of action; most of the big events in the world of this novel have taken place before the prose starts. This is instead a novel of thoughts and conversation, a novel rich with the drama of everyday life. All the really “happens” in the course of the novel is that Glory and Jack help their father with his everyday needs while the three of them discuss God, grace, and predestination. If a film adaptation were made it certainly would not be anyone’s idea of a summer blockbuster.

Some of the theological conversation either seemed repetitive or went slightly over my head, but at its heart Home is a novel filled with emotion, mostly unbearable pain. Jack’s suffering over the state of his soul and the irreparable harm he has done to the father who loves him beyond all reason is palpable and heartbreaking. Robinson renders everything in such vivid exactness that her characters seem more actually alive than any action hero ever could.

Reading Home after Gilead allowed some of the knowledge acquired by reading the latter to inform the former in interesting ways. In Home, Jack is keeping a secret from Glory and his father that he revealed to Reverend Ames near the end of Gilead. Conversely, the revelation of the name of Ames’s son in Home makes for an interesting irony.

The two novels fit well together and combine to create a remarkably fine portrait of two families. I heartily recommend reading them both.

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