Marilynne Robinson’s novels focus on issues of faith, perhaps most notably her second novel, Gilead. As James Woods notes in his New Yorker review, her new novel is no exception:
Her new novel, “Home” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux; $25), begins simply, eschewing obvious verbal fineness, and slowly grows in luxury—its last fifty pages are magnificently moving, and richly pondered in the way of “Gilead.” “Home” is not a sequel to that novel but more like that novel’s brother, since it takes place at the same narrative moment and dovetails with its happenings. In “Gilead,” John Ames’s great friend is the Reverend Robert Boughton, a retired Presbyterian minister (Ames is a Congregationalist). The two men grew up together, confide in one another, and share a wry, undogmatic Protestantism. But where Ames married late and has only one son, Boughton has eight children, one of whom, Jack, is a prodigal son. In the earlier novel, Ames frets over Jack (now in his forties), who has been difficult since he was a schoolboy: there has been petty theft, drifting, unemployment, alcoholism, and an illegitimate child, now deceased, with a local woman. Jack walked out of the Boughton home one day and stayed away for twenty years, not returning even for his mother’s funeral. After all that time, we learn, Jack has unexpectedly returned. In the last part of “Gilead,” Jack comes to Ames for a blessing—for the blessing he cannot get from his own father—and spills a remarkable secret: he has been living with a black woman from Memphis named Della, and has a son with her.
“Home” is set in the Boughton household at the time of Jack’s sudden return, and is an intense study of three people: the Reverend Boughton, the old, dying patriarch; his pious daughter Glory; and the prodigal Jack. Glory has her own sadness: she has come back to Gilead after the collapse of what she took to be an engagement, to a man who turned out to be married. Like Princess Marya in “War and Peace,” who does daily battle with her father, the old Prince Bolkonsky, she is the dutiful child who must submit to the demands of an aging tyrant. She is fearful of Jack, whom she hardly knows, and is in some ways envious of his rebellious freedom. Robinson evokes well the drugged shuffle of life in a home dominated by the routines of an old parent: how the two middle-aged children hear “a stirring of bedsprings, then the lisp lisp of slippered feet and the pock of the cane.” There are the imperious cries—for help getting dressed; a glass of water—and the hours distracted by the radio, card games, Monopoly, meals, pots of coffee. The very furniture is oppressive, immovable.
. . .
What propels the book, and makes it ultimately so powerful, is the Reverend Boughton, precisely because he is not the soft-spoken sage that John Ames is in “Gilead.” He is a fierce, stern, vain old man, who wants to forgive his son and cannot. He preaches sweetness and light, and is gentle with Jack, like a chastened Lear (“Let me look at you for a minute,” he says), only to turn on him angrily. There are scenes of the most tender pain. Robinson, so theologically obsessed with transfiguration, can transfigure the most banal observation. In the attic, for instance, Glory finds a chest of her father’s shirts, ironed “as if for some formal event, perhaps their interment”; and then the novelist, or poet, notices that the shirts “had changed to a color milder than white.” (Those cerements again.) Father and son clash while watching television news reports of the racial unrest in Montgomery. Boughton swats away his son’s anger with his bland, milky prophecy: “There’s no reason to let that sort of trouble upset you. In six months nobody will remember one thing about it.”
As the old man palpably declines, an urgency sets in. The imminence of death should conduce to forgiveness, but the father cannot allow it. He knows that his son has not returned for good. “He’s going to toss the old gent an assurance or two, and then he’s out the door,” he complains. Nothing will change, because the family situation rests on a series of paradoxes, which interlock to imprison father and son. Jack’s soul is homeless, but his soul is his home, for, as Jack tells his sister, the soul is “what you can’t get rid of.” He is condemned to leave and return. If the prodigal son is the most loved because most errant, then it is his errancy that is secretly loved: perhaps a family needs to have its designated sinner? Everyone longs for restoration, for the son to come home and become simply good, just as everyone longs for Heaven, but such restoration, like Heaven itself, is hard to imagine, and in our lack of imagination we somehow prefer what we can touch and feel—the palpability of our lapses.
Read it all here.