Their Father's House
By Marilynne Robinson
Farrar Straus Giroux. 325 pp. $25
Marilynne Robinson's mournful new novel, Home, is not a sequel or a prequel to her Pulitzer Prize-winning Gilead (2004) but rather a companion. And companionship, it turns out, is what all the lonely people in this book are seeking. Set in the same Iowa town, just a short distance from Rev. John Ames, the dying narrator of Gilead, the events in Home take place concurrently with those of that other novel. This time, however, we're in the house of Rev. Robert Boughton, Ames's longtime friend, who's equally close to putting on "imperishability."
The publisher claims these two novels can be read separately, but that's not fair to the profound relationship between them nor, I think, to the way Home depends on its predecessor for detail and resonance. Indeed, as meditative and spare as Gilead is, it now seems downright hyperactive next to this ruminative new volume. Rev. Ames, you will recall, spiced his reflections on life and God with wild tales of his one-eyed grandfather, who rode with the abolition terrorist John Brown. There are deadly adventures in Home, too, but they take place offstage, and they're never mentioned, only outlined by the pained silence of those who cannot forget.
Almost all the physical movement of this story is exhausted in its opening pages with the return of Glory, the youngest of Boughton's eight children. Robinson writes in the third person, but we see the events that unfold over the following months in 1950 from Glory's point of view. Her father is overjoyed to see her, and neither of them mentions the collapsed engagement and abandoned career that have brought her back to live in her childhood house at the age of 38. "Nothing about that house ever did change," she thinks, "except to fade or scar or wear." Now, forced to abandon dreams of a husband and a child of her own, she's haunted by the question, "What does it mean to come home?" With so much nursing and housekeeping to be done, both of them can pretend that Glory has returned entirely for her father's sake. "She did not permit herself to brood, strong as the urge was sometimes," Robinson writes. "She could decide nothing about her life. She did not want to think about her life."
Their quiet routine is soon interrupted by the return of another wayward Boughton child. The black sheep in this otherwise happy family, Jack was a petty thief and a brooding drunk who skipped town 20 years before, leaving behind his teenage girlfriend, a baby and a cloud of shame. During the intervening years, Jack continued to torture his parents by spurning every offer of assistance no matter how desperate his circumstances. When he finally returns -- thin, pale, unkempt -- Glory barely recognizes him. Though she once idolized him, now he seems to her "the weight on the family's heart, the unnamed absence, like the hero in a melancholy tale." But their father -- a man of "tireless tenderness" -- is giddy, thrilled by the possibility that his boundless love may finally open the heart of his wary, rueful child.
This is a version of the Prodigal Son that picks up where the Gospel parable stops, after the extravagant feast, when the excitement of reunion fades in the awkwardness of the next day, and then the next. Robinson has constructed a plot so still that it seems at times more a series of tableaux than a novel. The tension in Home is palpable but invisible. Rev. Boughton, Glory and Jack move through domestic chores and hesitant conversations, fraught with the danger of confession or rapprochement or affection. Glory and her father are determined to make their love known to Jack, but the possibility of his bolting again renders them all timid and formal. "They had always been so careful of him," Robinson writes, "almost afraid to touch him. There was an aloofness about him more thoroughgoing than modesty or reticence. It was feral, and fragile."
Jack is a man in the throes of a spiritual crisis, which Robinson captures with the most exquisite precision. An alcoholic clutching at the edges of sobriety, he's tempted to think he can clean himself up, but he's desperately afraid of failing, knowing that one more slip could kill both him and his long suffering father. With a mixture of affection, embarrassment and annoyance, he realizes that his father is "afraid to die because of me. To leave me behind, still unregenerate."
Writing one novel about a minister's family is asking for trouble; writing a second seems downright unrepentant, the kind of misjudgment that could land a reputable literary author in a Christian bookstore or with a cozy series on the BBC. But Robinson, who teaches at the Iowa Writers' Workshop, is unlikely to suffer either fate; her books are toxic to sentimentality. Even more than their stylistic beauty, what's miraculous about Gilead and Home is their explicit focus on spiritual affliction, discussed in the hard terms of Protestant theology. Robinson uses the words "grace," "salvation" and "prayer" frequently and without embarrassment and without drifting into the gassy lingo of ecumenical spirituality. Her characters cower in the shadow of perdition.
Though as a teenager Jack seemed to have paid no attention to his father's sermons, now, amid the ruins of his adult life, he's hypnotized by a sense of his worthlessness even as he feels "a certain spiritual hunger." Why, he wonders, could he never be a part of this wonderful family? What has drawn him again and again to hurt them and himself? "I don't really know what to do with myself," he tells Glory. "I'm a scoundrel."
As a disquisition on the agonies of family love and serial disappointment, Home is sometimes too illuminating to bear. During a long, candid conversation that serves as the crisis of the novel, Jack's father confesses, "So many times, over the years, I've tried not to love you so much. I never got anywhere with it, but I tried." And then he manages to ask, without rancor of any kind, "What I'd like to know, is why you didn't love us. That is what has always mystified me."
Although there's much sadness here, it's always cradled in Robinson's voice. "This life on earth is a strange business," she writes, but somehow that business sounds like a more familiar home in these discerning pages. ·
Ron Charles is a senior editor of Book World. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.