HOME by Marilynne Robinson [Farrar Straus & Giroux, 2008]

[an earlier version of this review appeared in THE REDWOOD COAST REVIEW]

Mari­lynne Robinson’s fiction has been amply rewarded: Housekeeping won the PEN/Hemingway Award; Gilead earned the National Book Critics Award and the Pulitzer Prize; Home has been named one of the Best Books of 2008 by both Library Journal and Publisher’s Weekly and, with rare exceptions, received rave reviews in newspapers, maga­zines and blogs. If you have yet to read her latest book, don’t let the fact that the author of Home is a self-professed Christian who occasionally gives sermons at her local church prejudice you one way or the other; you don’t have to be a churchgoer—or an anti-churchgoer—to experience the refreshing sin­gularity of her storytelling. As she told The Paris Review (Fall 2008): “I don’t like categories like religious and not religious. As soon as religion draws a line around itself it becomes falsi­fied. It seems to me that anything that is written compassio­nately and perceptively probably satisfies every definition of religious whether a writer intends it to be religious or not.” Robinson tends the flock of her characters and her readers religiously indeed, infusing Home with deep humanism.

Three Boughtons, Home’s main characters, are portrayed navigating one another and them­selves during a family crisis taking place from late spring to early fall in small-town Iowa, 1956, and all within the confines of the homeplace. Sound old fashioned? This novel's themes do recapitulate fictional concerns of 19th cen­tury American literature but at the same time elaborate upon widespread dilemmas of the 20th and 21st in a heartrending story of opportunities lost, commu­nications curtailed, and old social orders on the brink of dismantlement. The trio: Reve­rend Robert Boughton, paterfamilias, enfeebled by old age, in need of daily care, and ravenous for reconciliation with the only one of his children who broke from the family fold; Jack Boughton, the ne’er-do-well Prodigal Son, soiled and scarred by a checkered personal history, ambiguously returning after twenty years’ absence; Glory Boughton, youngest of the eight sibl­ings, abandoned by her fiancée and dutifully come home to take care of the old man.

From start to finish, Robinson commits the narrative perspective to Glory whose ques­tioning in­telligence and har­rowing self-scrutiny optimize the use of that point of view such that the author’s omniscience seems hardly limited at all, albeit Glory herself senses that “there were limits to her experience that precluded her knowing what there was to be wished.” The deft tim­ing of the revelations which emerge from a seamless shifting between incident and Glory’s ex­tended interior monolo­gues grants the reader generous allowance to interpret the observable narra­tive events, infre­quent and a-dramatic as they may be. Reflective passages render intricacies of a human terrain explored with a poetic rather than didactic or moralizing sense of direction.

Robinson’s essentially contemplative purpose induces us to dwell upon the possible meanings of the mate­rials before us, and the slowly evolving trajectory of her plot allows us to delve into those meanings; her com­position rarely moves at a tempo any faster than largo or even largo di molto. Gradually, in scene after scene pared down to pure dialogue, her three main characters explicitly concern them­selves with moralistic issues such as transgression, penance, perdition, redemption—and all couched in terms of tradi­tional Protestant theology. Within the tributaries of their talk, feeding into one ul­timately large and relentless current of conversation, her people openly deliberate upon regret, shame, resentment, and anger. Only half-aware that these emo­tions are extractions from their own very lives, they seem sometimes to discuss them as if they were merely grand abstractions bear­ing down on humankind. The entire scheme sounds preposterous, but Robinson’s authorial over­sight and her steady touch provide a tour de force demonstration of form fol­lowing function in a prose without recourse to simplistic picto­rialism, sen­timentalist cliché— or escapist nostalgia.

Home reads slowly on purpose, fostering meditation, and rewards no skipping ahead: the cumulative effect of staying with the unhurried pace of this linear tale is a felt sense that we seem to be moving ever closer to an understanding of how these people think and feel, and how we think and feel about them. Robinson maintains a remote yet intimate distance from her brood. Through Glory’s point of view, she keeps all her characters company and gives them her ful­lest attention; she cares for them. Sustaining a tender and unflinching regard upon their struggles, the author herself seems also to be searching for meanings. “The characters that interest me” she told The Paris Review, “are the ones that seem to pose questions in my own thinking.” All but visible behind the scenes and audible between the lines, the author can be sensed pulling for the father to rescind his maddening, unawares membership in the Old Guard club of Jim Crow’s South. She can be felt rooting for the hypersensitive 43-year-old son to throw off his self-loathing and debi­litating alcoholism. She seems to be praying for the liberation of the pious 38-year-old daughter all but penning herself into a long, sad self-renunciation while she settles into her self-assigned role as stay-at-home spinster. Again, from her Paris Review interview: “If you had to summarize the Old Testament, the summary would be: Stop doing this to yourselves. But it is not in our nature to stop harming ourselves. We don’t behave con­sistently with our own dignity or with the dignity of other people.”

A curious strategy underlies the full expression of Robinson’s forgiving attitude towards all her characters: even while their actions disappoint her best hopes, the author feigns an uplift­ing effort at excusing them their self-limiting behaviors. Take, for instance, the authority of in­stitu­tionalized racism suggested in the personal and public stance of the Reverend and doggedly challenged by his tormented son, Jack, who seems compelled, at great cost of comfort and con­venience to himself, to put the lie to narrow-minded in­justice. The implied moral shortcoming of the older man and confused acting-out of the younger get almost but not quite ex­plained away. Supposedly, the author would have us believe, the individual’s blame ought to be deflected to the group, attributed to the arbitrary conditions of up­bringing and cultural mores of the times. The author’s seemly manner here, however, is a tactical pose only appearing to suggest that an indi­vidual’s strengths and weaknesses are embedded within a family of origin, which is in turn em­bedded in a culture of origin—implying there’s no one in particular to blame. But that would be far too fatuous a circular argument for the likes of Robin­son, and we are not really intended to be taken in. As elsewhere, we are invited to ponder the possibilities. The honesty of the author’s vision disallows any simplistic ideological agendas; she will re­peatedly leave us puz­zling over mysteries which are the very preoccupations of the Reverend, Glory, and Jack. “The minute you start thinking about someone in the whole circumstance of his life to the extent that you can, he becomes mysterious, immediately.” (Paris Review).

These Boughtons attempt to resolve questions of right and wrong according to standard ethical principles, and that sort of discourse occupies much of their talk as well as Glory’s private thought. That such Protestant casuistry emerges organically and engagingly in the dialogue illustrates Robinson’s amazing feat of author­ship and epitomizes her dedication to her own fascinating inquiry.

“The Lord is wonderful.” As Glory’s last thought, this simple assertion’s cryptic position as the book’s last line tests the limits of our imaginative grasp of Robinson’s quietly austere account. Have the personal healings of these characters been finally accomplished? Are their indi­vidual sacrifices and sufferings ultimately vindicated? Haven’t we heard that last line some­where in Home before:

He sat perfectly still for a minute, smiling into space, considering. ‘Just when you’re about to give up entirely! The Lord is wonderful!’

‘Maybe you shouldn’t read too much into it, Papa.’

Attentive readers surely know that they can feel free—if not obligated—to recog­nize a cer­tain strain of doubt in that final utterance, a tentative tone of voice qualifying its per­haps too-pat declaration. Marilynne Robinson is too sophisticated and honest a literary artist to package and deliver—disguised as a novel—either a theological tract or a treatise of social science.

While no one in the Boughton family may be fully restored by their long and arduous summer together, they all seem par­doned in this deeply humanistic tale that teaches us, at the very least, to think twice before writing anyone off as just another stumble bum, or doughty old maid, or stiff old white guy. Think twice and perhaps cultivate a more charitable choice of words in our speech, in our thoughts, and in our reli­gious or irreligious hearts.