Review Of Marilynne Robinson’s Book, ‘Home’
Author: Marilynne Robinson
New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008. 325 pages
Reviewed by: M.H.
“Ye who are weary, come home.”
Home is a tender and profoundly nostalgic text about family and the passing of generations. It is set in the 1950s in the town of Gilead, Iowa, and told mainly from the point of view of Glory Boughton, a school teacher who has returned home to nurse her ailing father after her five-year-long romance has failed. She is 38 years old. Her older brother Jack, something of a renegade, shows up also. He has not been home for 20 years. Jack has a history of alcoholism and petty theft but is a charming and endearing character. Glory undertakes to please him too, and the Boughtons spend some weeks together that are written about with simplicity and extraordinary detail. Old Mr. Boughton is a Presbyterian Reverend and the text accommodates some meditations on love and death and faith.
This book has something retro about it since it is set in the fifties and centres on the problems of dealing with an alcoholic family member. Some beautiful passages evoke the prairies. Robinson writes:
The next morning Jack was out in the garden early, cutting back weeds head high, gaunt shafts of plants with masses of tiny flowers on them, dusty lavender, droning with bees. And there would be black-eyed Susan, and nettles and milkweed and jewelweed and brambles and some avid vine that wilted in sunlight and broke at the slightest touch, leaving tiny whiskers of thorn in the hand that touched it.
Robinson’s previous novel Gilead won the Pulitzer Prize. It told the story of Reverend Boughton’s neighbour John Ames and evoked the prairie town with luminous prose. These passages about the natural world of the Iowa town are some of the loveliest in the latest novel, and Robinson’s careful depiction of the relationship between the two old men is brilliantly handled. Home continues where Gilead left off, zoning in on relationships in the Boughton family and the weariness that brings wounded family members to seek out their childhood place of nurturing. Robinson says:
She felt sorry for her father, happy as he was. It was hard work talking to jack. So little in his childhood and youth could be mentioned without discomfort, his twenty-year silence was his to speak about if he chose to, but they were prepared to appreciate his discretion if any account of it might have caused more discomfort still. Then there was the question “Why are you here?” which they would never ask. Glory thought, why am I here? How cruel it would be to ask me that.
The deft touches of prairie life across the years are welcome in this tale of minute emotional crises. They help to balance the main narrative and keep the reader’s focus tuned to the suffering of the adult characters. Memories abound and are beautifully recorded. For example, Robinson writes joyously of the Gilead of old when she says:
The sky was blue, the terraced hills glittered with new corn, and the pastures the cows were standing with their calves or lying in the mingled, muddied shade of oak trees. “Well, I’d almost forgotten it all,” the old man said. “It’s good to get out of the house from time to time. Ames will enjoy it.” He talked for a while about the old Gilead. It was the smell that reminded him. There used to be chicken coops and rabbit hutches behind every house almost, and people kept milk cows, and there was enough open land right in town to be plowed with a horse or a mule and planted corn. You knew the animals around town just like you knew the children, and if some old she-goat was grazing in the flower garden, well, you knew you her and she knew you and you could just walk her home.
These passages add to the retro feel of the novel.
Robinson writes with an eye to the fine detail and her text is a pleasure to read simply for the sheer joy of the writing. However, I found the story a bit slow and repetitive and the character Jack somewhat tedious in his forever excuses and self-detracting statements. He wants to be the centre of attention always, it would seem, and speaks with his hand to his face most of the time, a gesture that gets annoying in its repetition. I believe he is intended to be an anti-hero of some proportions, but if this be the case, he is really not sufficiently interesting to pull it off.
On the other hand, Glory and her housewifely ways are always a pleasure. She cooks chicken and dumplings in order to fill the house with a familiar childhood aroma and so comfort the old father and Jack. She makes pots of coffee to warm them, and pancakes to treat them to special breakfasts. Glory is a pious woman (though she rejects the word as applied to herself), and the old Reverend will leave the house to her when he dies. Glory is surprised by this gesture, and deeply conflicted. Does she want the old house to have a place for herself that is home also to other siblings, or is she frightened to be trapped in the old house? Only the future can tell as it manifests itself.
Glory, meanwhile, is caught up in memories of the past that made the old house home. She thinks of her grandmother:
She’d eat kidney when she find it. Tongue. Mutton. In spring she’d be out in the fields, along the fences, picking dandelion greens as soon as the sun was up. She’d come in with her apron full of purslane. My mother thought it was embarrassing. She’d say, “You’d think we didn’t feed her” but she always did what she wanted to do.
The healing of these two characters in the home is the real subject of this glowing text, and if it is a bit slow and repetitive, it does not really detract from the moving aspect of the telling. This is a woman’s book, about nature of family and the healing power of love.
Marilynne Robinson has also written Housekeeping and two books of nonfiction, Mother Country and The Death of Adam. She teaches at the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop.