Posts filed under ‘Robinson Marilynne’

Marilynne Robinson — Home

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.


February 11, 2009 at 10:46 am 2 comments

Marilynne Robinson — Gilead

A lot of great novels are dispiriting — I don’t ever remember coming across a great novel so thoroughly spiriting as Marilynne Robinson’s wonderful Gilead (2004).


The heart and soul of Robinson’s Pulitzer-winner is the Revd. John Ames, the novel’s utterly convincing and highly likeable narrator. An elderly man with a new wife and a young child, Ames’ narrative takes the form of a long letter from father to son, to be read posthumously, blending reminisces about past generations with a diary of Ames’ present-day life in the town of Gilead, Iowa, 1956. The framing device has built-in poignancy, on which Robinson capitalizes from the first words:

I told you last night that I might be gone sometime, and you said, Where, and I said, To be with the Good Lord, and you said, Why, and I said, Because I’m old, and you said, I don’t think you’re old. And you put your hand in my hand and you said, You aren’t very old, as if that settled it. I told you you might have a very different life from mine, and from the life you’ve had with me, and that would be a wonderful thing, there are many ways to live a good life.

When Ames’s sinister namesake, John Ames Boughton, “Jack”, the prodigal son of a lifelong friend, returns from self-imposed exile, Ames feels his destiny has become strangely intertwined with that of this errant wanderer, whose¬† darkly mysterious past adds suspense to the narrative.

How should I deal with these fears I have, that Jack Boughton will do you and your mother harm, just because he can, just for the sly, unanswerable meanness of it?

Ames makes frequent offhand remarks on theological topics, and these diversions are, surprisingly enough, Gilead‘s trump card: measured, thoughtful and modest, they are in some sense plainly Robinson’s attempt to encourage a new perspective on the austere “Bible Belt” Protestantism that Europeans tend to regard with sniggering contempt.

It seems to me that people tend to forget that we are to love our enemies, not to satisfy some standard of righteousness, but because God their Father loves them. I have probably preached on that a hundred times.

Ames is smart enough to see the barriers between human understanding and ultimate truth. He is sceptical of the reach of language and argument: “Does God exist?” he asks himself, and refuses to answer — not because he lacks faith, but because he doesn’t even consider himself capable of truly grasping the content of the question. But Ames’ introspective musings also illuminate, albeit obliquely, Ames’ troubled mind as he negotiates the threats that face him: fatherhood, age, death, and Jack.

As I have said, the worst eventualities can have great value as experience. And often enough, when we think we are protecting ourselves, we are struggling against our rescuer. I know this, I have seen the truth of it with my own eyes, though I have not myself always managed to live by it, the Good Lord knows.

Not much happens in the novel’s present-moment, but it doesn’t have to. In Ames, Robinson has given an authentic voice to the “lost continent”: Mid-Western small-town America. The subtle, laconic, understated prose, presumably honed through Gilead‘s 24-year maturation, is something to savour. The writing reads like a relic from an gentler, simpler, antiquated time: it is not obviously a work of fiction at all, such is the precision of Robinson’s craft.

I have paid a good deal of attention to light, but no one could begin to do it justice. There was the feeling of a weight of light — pressing the damp out of the grass and pressing the smell of sour old sap out of the boards on the porch floor and burdening even the trees a little as a late snow would do. It was the kind of light that rests on your shoulders the way a cat lies on your lap.

But what surprised and pleased me most in Gilead was the rare virtuousness of its characters. In a time when many authors (including many of my favourites — Philip Roth, for example) plumb the depths of taboo-smashing libertinism in search of a good story, few deal with the enduring problem of how to be good. I’m open to suggestions, but I think Robinson may be one of the first authors since Dostoevsky to grapple with the question head-on. John Ames joins Alyosha Karamazov and Prince Mishkin in that tiny drawer marked “virtuous heroes”.

October 9, 2008 at 1:19 am 6 comments