Parable for the boomerangers

21 November 2008

David McLaurin on a thoughtful story of life back in the nest

Marilynne Robinson

MARILYNNE ROBINSON’s new novel, Home, is a companion piece to her earlier Gilead. It is set in the same place and time as the previous volume, but focuses on different characters, and can be read on its own. Gilead is a small town in Iowa, but the action is almost entirely confined to the house and garden of the Revd Robert Bough­ton, an ageing retired Presbyterian minister, who is being cared for by his daughter, Glory.

Glory, one of four daughters “named after theological abstrac­tions”, has come home at the age of 38, after being deceived in love by her fiancé. Into this claustrophobic world, dense with oppressive furniture and heavy theological volumes, steps Jack, one of Mr Boughton’s four sons, who has been away for 20 years. To their father, Jack’s return is the answer to long and fervent prayers; to Glory, he is a stranger, although one whom she comes to love.

The reasons for Jack’s flight and his eventual return are gradually revealed. He had in youth fathered an illegitimate child, and he is a recovering alcoholic. As with the name of the town, so, too, the opening sections of the book recall the Bible, in particular the parable of the Prodigal Son.

The initial tensions between Jack and Glory develop in a way that echo the parable’s hints about how the virtuous can resent sinners who have been forgiven. As the novel pro­gresses, the three principal char­acters are revealed through their incessant, almost circular, conver­sations.

Indeed, they have little to do but talk. The father is sinking into the helplessness of old age, while Jack and Glory are engaged in tasks of humdrum domesticity that provide no distraction from their interior lives. Why is Jack the way he is? Is this reprobate theologically, in the Calvinist sense, predestined for perdition? Remarkably for a contemporary novel, Home features a long theological discussion around the kitchen table about Calvin’s doctrine of predestination between Mr Boughton, his two children, and his friend, the Revd John Ames.

About one third of the way in to this 300-page story, Glory and Jack see a television in a shop window. “Is that Montgomery?” asks Glory. The name of the Alabama town, which saw some of the first stirrings of the civil-rights movement, will have more resonance for an American audience than a British one.

The novel is set in the summer of 1956 (one can work it out from the hints given), but history is something that happens off-stage, until the last few pages, when the breaking in of exterior reality sets up the possibility of a further volume, in what could develop into a huge roman-fleuve about American life.

Home is both beautiful and cruel: it has a ruminative transcendent­alism of style, and yet the people in it are trapped — and not, one feels, through choices of their own. The old man is a saint, one of the elect, but perhaps a monster, too. Love is mixed with grief, and the two can never be separated. One feels for Jack and Glory, and one realises just how lucky Mr Boughton’s other children are to have left, or to have escaped from, home.

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