Saturday, 2 April 2011


Home - Marilynne Robinson

This book reminds me of the stealth of dandelions, when the breeze catches them and the air is suddenly filled with their wafting seeds, catching the light like miniature suns. Gentle yet devastating.

Home is Marilyne Robinson's third novel. I have been a fan of her first novel, Housekeeping for many years but only recently found out that she had written not one but two more recent novels after a gap of twenty years. Housekeeping (1984), Gilead (2004) and Home (2008). Gilead and Home are companion novels both set in the town of Gilead and recounting the same events from different viewpoints. Having read Home I will now be looking out for a copy of Gilead and may actually have to stray outside the shelves of charity shops because I can't wait.

Like her earlier Housekeeping, Home goes straight onto my list of modern classics. Beautifully written and preternaturally acute, Home paints the picture of three of the Boughton family: the fading paterfamilias Reverend Robert Boughton; youngest daughter Glory who has returned from disappointment to care for her aging father; and prodigal son  Jack who has reappeared after twenty years.

Glory reminds me of Eveline in Joyce's story of the same name in Dubliners. The care of the family home falls to her resposibility after her mother's death. Her 'real' life takes place in her dreams, where gently mutable children live in "A modest sunlit house, everything in it spare and functional, airy."  She has a very Joycean epiphany at the novels' end in which she sees the remainder of her days laid out ahead of her as a journey towards one "moment".

Her story also reflects the unequal opportunities for women in her world (not that they are equal today).

"If she had been a man she might have chosen the ministry. That would have pleased her father. Luke had followed him, but only after it became clear that Dan would not. ... She seemed always to have known that, to her father's mind, the world's great work was the business of men, of gentle, serious men well versed in Scripture and eloquent at prayer, or, in any case, ordained in some reasonably respectable denomination. They were the stewards of ultimate things."

This passage is wonderfully double edged, as is much that takes place in these pages. Freedom is a beast that lives in chains. The chains of family loyalty and fealty to father and kind.

Jack is so in tune with the distance between people that he must hear his bones rattle in his flesh. He is concerned with 'ultimate things', but not with the certainty of faith, nor belonging. He has never really felt at home, in Gilead or elsewhere.

"Sometimes it seems as though I'm in one universe and you're in another. All of you.

This is a book about certainty and belonging. For the congregation in the town of Gilead, certainty is a birthright.
"Even her father's sermons treated salvation as  a thing for which they could be grateful as a body, as if, for their purposes at least, that problem had been sorted out between the Druids and the centurions at about the time of Hadrian."

However, Gilead is not quite outside of time and nations. This is the mid fifties and the world plays its role in this story. The radio (and the time) is introduced in a wonderfully pungent way: "The big old radio grew warm and gave off an odor like rancid hair tonic. It reminded her of a nervous salesman."

When a portable TV is brought to the house the echo of the stirrings of the Civil Rights movement from Montgomery become difficult to ignore, but ignored they are by the reverend father. "There's no reason to let that sort of trouble upset you. In six months nobody will remember one thing about it." It is here that we start to see that those who have the monopoly on certainty may not have the monopoly on morality.

Neither Jack nor Glory are back home because of success or because this is what they wanted. Through shared disappointment they make tentative soundings of their distinct burdens. But these are fragile moves for Jack for whom "estrangement" is "his oldest habit."

Robinson peels away the illusions and posturings from her characters and reveals them to us as the naked, forked creatures that we all are. Jack will, I think, live in me as long as I have a memory. This book is redolent of the great poetry of Yeats' maturity.

"And I took all the blame out of all sense and reason,
Until I cried and trembled and rocked to and fro,
Riddled with light.  Ah! when the ghost begins to quicken,
Confusion of the death-bed over, is it sent
Out naked on the roads, as the books say, and stricken
By the injustice of the skies for punishment?"
(from In Cold Heaven, W.B. Yeats)

In a barn haunted by the ghost of the horse Snowflake who lived there for many years the bones of the story turn to the glue to which they can be reduced.  Jack notes that the soul is "what you can't be rid of."

This is a book of essential things. It is also an essential book.


  1. Lovely post! I agree with your estimation of Robinson as a creator of instant modern classics. I also urge you to go ahead and read Gilead promptly as I view at as somehow more essential. Though it deals more directly with matters of faith and religion, I know of atheists and agnostics who still acknowledge its undeniable power. Thanks so much for stopping by my blog and sharing yours with me. Looking forward to more.

  2. What a beautiful review of a quietly beautiful novel. Nice to see Rebecca on your list of books too, a favorite. Glad to find your blog on book blogs, am following.!

  3. I love what you say here about freedom being a beast that lives in chains; that seems to be a common thread in all her books. It shows up too in that drive to wander in Housekeeping.

    And Gilead is well worth venturing out of the charity shops for if you have to.

  4. I have finally read Gilead. Managed to find it in a Charity Shop! Although both are brilliant I think it is safe to say that the sum is greater than the parts. Two extraordinary novels.