Marilynne Robinson has a way with words that makes the simple sacred, and the sacred simple. Already acclaimed for her previous novels Housekeeping and Gilead, she does not disappoint with her latest offering, Home, which was published last year.
Home is set in summertime in Gilead, a sleepy, melancholy place in the middle of Iowa. We meet again the characters from Gilead but this time the story centres on retired Presbyterian minister Robert Boughton and his family. The book opens with Glory Boughton returning home to care for her aging father, leaving behind a long teaching career. Her loyalty to her father is unparalleled, and when her wayward but beloved brother Jack comes home for the first time in twenty years, it feels like the meeting of the elder and younger brothers in the parable of the prodigal son.
The analogy is not that straightforward, as we quickly find out. When Jack discovers that Glory was engaged to someone who took her money and was eventually found to be already married, he remarks, “I believe I have just been told that I am not the only sinner in this family.” Jack is an unemployed alcoholic, father of a late illegitimate child, and a rejected son-in-law, a résumé which doesn’t jive with the Protestant ethic of this small Iowa town. Glory and Jack were never close in childhood, but in adulthood they now find themselves starting over. Without homes of their own, they return to what’s familiar. While Glory easily fits into the routine, Jack battles to find acceptance in his hometown. He struggles particularly with his father, who loves him more than his other children but was gravely hurt by his long absence.
Home is a slow book. Robinson recognises that change does not happen overnight. It is often painful. Changing people want home to be a place that is always the same. Robinson keeps a steady tension throughout the book between change and sameness. It is Glory who ponders this tension often. She had dreamed of a home “very different from this good and blessed and fustian and oppressive tabernacle of Boughton probity and kind intent.” She wants to be a dutiful daughter and yet laments life’s lost opportunities. She describes how the Boughton children went to university and learned about societal change in the wider world, and then came back to Gilead to find every rock and tree in the same place. The décor in the Boughton home was always the same. Jack too hints that when he eventually leaves for good, he wants it to stay that way, even after Boughton dies and Glory inherits the house. Jack spends much of his time tending to the garden to ensure that it continues to produce what is has produced since his childhood. In the same way he keeps the barn repaired and fixes the DeSoto, his father’s old automobile. This stasis is his only sense of home.
Woven throughout the book are questions of God, faith and salvation. Glory’s faith is rooted in her loyalty to her family. Being at home compels her to keep to the rituals of praying on her knees, attending church and reading the Bible. Beyond the rituals, however, Glory has an understanding of God’s grace that searches after not only Jack’s soul, but her own as well. Robinson captures this longing for grace through Glory’s thoughts, inspired by the book of Romans: “How oddly holiness situated itself among the things of the world, how endlessly creation wrenched and strained under the burden of its own significance.” Glory’s sensitivity is such that she cries spontaneously when she finds deep meaning in a conversation, or when Jack does something that provokes her anxiety for him.
While Glory cannot control her tears, Jack suffers from nervous laughter.Through it we feel his uneasiness of being at home. Jack knows his father is dying and is caught between telling him what he wants to hear and being intellectually honest about his agnosticism. Jack wants total acceptance from his father, but his father wants to see proof that he is already changing his ways. One morning Jack doesn’t appear for breakfast. Boughton says to Glory, “Things don’t change, I guess. People don’t. So it seems.” Towards the end of the book, it seems that Boughton is back to where he was before Jack’s return – he is not even aware of his presence at the dinner table.
After a sometimes achingly slow narrative, the ending is surprisingly powerful. However, Robinson does not satisfy the reader with a full release of tension and the shalom of restored relationships. It seems she asks the question: what happens at the end of the parable of the prodigal son, after the feasting is over? In this God-filled yet broken universe, the path to the Father may be bumpy, even for those who have returned home. But as Boughton likes to say, “All bread is the bread of heaven.” On the journey, God’s good creation sustains us – a gift of new clothing, a gentle haircut, roasted chicken and homemade apple pie, and the re-discovery of a sister, a brother, a father, a son. As Boughton had always told his children, “He lets us wander so we will know what it means to come home.”