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Reviews

Home

Marilyn Robinson
Virago, 324pp

HomeMarilynne Robinson won the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for her second novel, Gilead, and it was in everyday terms a great success. Spiritually too, it remains a treasure, a compass point by which to navigate. Robinson's new book, Home takes the same events that are described in Gilead and follows them from the point of view of a different character. Gilead followed the journal entries of John Ames, an aged Iowa preacher as he neared the end of his life and found that he could not entirely count his blessings until he had dealt with a toxic scrap of jealousy that was threatening his soul. Home sees the story through the eyes of Glory, the daughter of Robert Boughton, John Ames's lifelong friend.

Covering the same territory again is a risky step for Robinson to take - we know what happens next. However, because the only events of any significance in both Gilead and Home are the things that happen inside the characters' minds and souls, the change of viewpoint creates a completely different tale. In writing Home, Robinson has done no more than leave the head of John Ames, and cross the road to the house where Glory Boughton lives, nursing her aged father, yet it is as if she has entered a foreign landscape.

At first, Home seems to fall short of the perfection of Gilead. How could it not? The first disappointment is that Glory does not have a voice as distinctive as John Ames's. Whereas Gilead was presented as if it were John's diary, written for his young son to read one day, Home is written in the third person, slightly distancing.

The next problem is that the opening chapters of Home adhere very closely to the parable of the prodigal son. Glory's delinquent brother Jack returns home; her father rejoices and demands she make a celebratory cream pie and she is resentful. To a Christian, who is bound to know the story well, this retelling therefore feels plodding at first, although it is true that the wider audience may remember the parable only vaguely. The other factor that slows down the early chapters is that Glory's memories of childhood tend to be related in general terms, describing relationships rather than picking out the bright details of particular scenes.

However, it is well worth sticking with the book because before too long Robinson begins to examine what happens after the prodigal son and his family have picked the calf bones clean, and that's where it becomes gripping. Once again she is turning over those two well-worn pebbles in her pocket, grace and forgiveness, forgiveness and grace.

Glory has been wounded by her brother's past misdemeanours, and a man who was very much like him has put an end to her hopes of ever being a wife and mother. In spite of those things, Glory finds a growing affection for Jack. We hope that her love and support will help him to lead a decent life but there are no schmaltzy easy solutions in Home.

Jack seems to have a void within him where the other characters have faith, and so their system of values does not work for him. Through his reactions, we are led to ask whether a person can be damaged and alienated by being forgiven. Might a man who has been offered grace actually yearn to be punished? And who has the moral high ground anyway? Robinson uses symbolism such as damaged hands/stigmata to portray Jack as Christlike in his suffering, even though it is his own sin that causes him grief. Twice in the story, Jack summons his courage and makes a rare visit to a church service and on each occasion a pastor stands in his pulpit and condemns him before the whole congregation. So much for rejoicing over a lost sheep.

Yet Jack is relentlessly humble and honest and acknowledges his sins, whereas other characters are not even aware of the damage they are doing, as with the casual racism of his father. At one stage, the old man voices a truth 'If there is one thing the faith teaches us clearly it is that we are all sinners and owe each other pardon and grace.' Yet it also seems that, unlike his son, he does not understand the depth of his own wrongdoing. Perhaps none of the 'respectable' characters in the book do, nor indeed its respectable readers. As Jack says, 'I have noticed that thieves are crucified and hypocrites seem not to be'.

However, towards the end of the book, the gloves come off. Glory and Jack's father is heading steadily toward death, and although at the start of the story he still has the strength to face out any of Jack's misdemeanours 'with a statesmanlike expression' by the end he has lost the strength and voices the self-righteous thoughts that have been whirring behind the mask all along.

Finally, Home engages as much as Gilead did, both because it is impossible not to love Glory and Jack who are portrayed with humour and charm, and because of the way Robinson holds forgiveness up to the light and turns it by minute degrees, like a jeweller examining each facet of a precious stone. As with Gilead, I shall certainly be reading this book again.

Clare Hobba