Marilynne Robinson — Home

February 11, 2009 at 10:46 am 2 comments

I mistakenly thought Marilynne Robinson’s Home (2008 ) was a sequel to Gilead (2004). It’s not. It’s contemporaneous — the same story from a different perspective, though knowledge of the earlier Pulitzer-winning novel is assumed. One almost wonders whether Home started life as a notebook for Gilead. Ever wondered what supporting characters in novels do when they’re not on the page? No? Well now you can find out anyway. It’s probably a good idea to leave all your expectations at the door with Home, as its markedly different to Robinson’s previous novels.


Whereas Housekeeping (1980) and Gilead were masterful fictionalized memoirs that dove deep into their narrator’s personal and family history, Home is a reasonably straightforward, third-person, temporally-continuous narrative. Jack Boughton arrives home after twenty years to live in the desolate house of his ailing minister father, Robert, and his heartbroken spinster sister, Glory, whom Robinson describes with particular tenderness:

She had dreamed of a real home for herself and the babies, and the fiancé, a home very different from this good and blessed and fustian and oppressive tabernacle of Boughton probity and kind intent. She knew, she had known for years, that she would never open a door on that home, never cross that threshold, never scoop up a pretty child and set it on her hip and feel it lean into her breast and eye the world from her arms with the complacency of utter trust. Ah well.

Though the narration often looks-in on the thoughts of Glory (now all but a servant to her father), she is primarily a spectator to the comings and goings of Jack, who is the central driving force in the plot. In his childhood, he fathered a child and ran away. He returns from his time in the wilderness disgraced, determined to win the support of his father and the Rev’d John Ames (his namesake and the narrator of Gilead), hoping against hope to build a settled life for himself in this isolated Iowa town, dreaming that his black wife will return to him from St Louis.

It sounds like the setup for a great novel. And it is. But that novel is Gilead. Home pales in comparison. Housekeeping and Gilead are wonderful for their subjectivity, their whimsical, unreliable narration, full of little reminisces, stories from long ago and (in Ames’s case) offhand insights regarding theology. Home is practically a study of boredom: it’s three miserable, ordinary people, living in an empty house. It’s Big Brother 1956.

The book’s redeeming strength is, unsurprisingly, Robinson’s sensational descriptive prose. I was left nonplussed by Home, but I still say without hesitation that Robinson is one of the best stylists of English I’ve ever come across, and the magician that wowed the world with Housekeeping is still in evidence here — notably when describing the slow decay of a house through time:

Other pious families gave away the things they did not need. Boughtons put them in the attic, as if to make an experiment of doing without them before they undertook some irreparable act of generosity. Then, what with the business of life and the passage of time, what with the pungency of mothballs and the inevitable creep of dowdiness through any stash of old clothes, however smart they might have been when new, it became impossible to give the things away.

… or the inner turmoil of poor Glory, arguably a dead ringer for Housekeeping‘s Sylvie:

She had learned to compose her face, so that from a distance she would not necessarily seem to be weeping, and then they made a little game of catching her at it — tears, they would say. Ah, tears. She thought how considerate it would have been of nature to allow the venting of feeling through the palm of a hand or even the sole of a foot.

Robinson can still write a stunning sentence, but this whole is less than the sum of its parts.


Entry filed under: Book Reviews, Robinson Marilynne. Tags: , , , , , , .

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2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. KevinfromCanada  |  February 20, 2009 at 12:04 am

    Home is the only Robinson that I have read and I was disappointed enough that I wasn’t going to try another — a “meditation on boredom” (with a fair bit of Scripture thrown in) pretty well sums up my response. This review is so well put together in terms of describing what I didn’t like about Home that it becomes a perfect reason why I should give at least one of the others a try. Since Housekeeping is on a shelf somewhere, I will. Many thanks.

  • 2. Jonathan Birch  |  February 20, 2009 at 10:04 am

    No problem! Housekeeping is certainly hard work at times, but well worth the investment I feel.

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