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Characters in Search

By Margaret Black

Home

By Marilynne Robinson

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 325 pages, $25

Talk to each other, for heaven’s sake!” you want to scream at the smothered characters in Home, Marilynne Robinson’s infuriating new novel, as they hesitantly tiptoe around the walls surrounding all the feelings, desires, and experiences that matter to them. You can get so annoyed with everyone that you finally don’t care whether they arrive at any resolutions or not. This is particularly frustrating because in Home, Robinson has taken a second look at the people and stories that made up her glorious and popular novel of three years ago, Gilead.

Both novels take place over the summer of 1956, in the tiny town of Gilead, Iowa. Gilead focuses on all the things that the Reverend John Ames (in his 70s) wants to tell the miraculous 7-year-old child of his very late second marriage, and this ultimately includes his fear that Jack Boughton, his namesake and the son of his best friend, the Rev. Robert Boughton, will somehow bring harm to his beloved wife and son. Home focuses on the charming, now very threadbare, black sheep/prodigal son Jack, who returns after 20 years apparently to make peace with his dying father. Jack’s youngest sister, 38-year-old Glory, also has come home, shortly before Jack arrives, her life a meaningless desert. While Gilead is voiced with great modulation and insight by John Ames in the first person, Home is told in the third person, with the narrative largely reflecting the thoughts and feelings of Glory. As in Gilead, the author embeds the characters’ concerns in the theology and language of Calvinist Christianity.

Neither book is a novel of plot; the pleasure of reading both comes from the author’s nuanced characters and subtle changes of relationship.

Jack, after a childhood of inexplicably perverse and isolating bad behavior and a dissolute youth in which he fathered and abandoned a child, now dead, has left home, gotten in enough trouble to be sent to prison, and become an alcoholic. But after prison, Glory gradually learns, Jack formed a long-term relationship—a marriage in fact if not in name—and he appears to be trying to reestablish connection with this woman.

Robert, who loves Jack best of all his many children, has always forgiven him, but Jack is not particularly interested in forgiveness. Nevertheless, it becomes clear to Glory that he is trying to find some ground on which to be honest and engaged with his father, and this includes trying to talk about matters of ethics and of theology. Jack’s capacity to be charming and appear utterly sincere—qualities he has used ruthlessly to his own ends—makes it extraordinarily difficult for anyone, including himself, to tell when he is, as a matter of fact, saying what he really means.

Jack raises the issue of the black bus boycott in Montgomery, but his father regards the black protests as provocation and incitement to violence. The conversation stops dead. Toward the end of the novel Jack asks his father at a dinner with John Ames and his wife about predestination—does God truly foreordain that some shall be saved but that many others are, from birth, doomed to perdition? His father and John Ames understand Jack’s apparent worry here and fudge the discussion, but Ames’ young wife, who also understands and quite clearly has a past of her own, declares that people can change, with the implication that they can be saved. But no one speaks directly about their personal experiences, personal needs, or fears.

Glory thinks that Jack has an ulterior motive for coming back to Gilead, and it involves the woman he keeps writing to. By the end of Gilead, Ames knows why Jack returned and understands why he is leaving again, but this is something Jack’s father never learns in either book.

Jack is a fascinating character, and his dilemma and desires are sympathetic. His alcoholism is treated brilliantly, and subtly we are brought to see that it may represent the greatest obstacle of all. But Home perpetually bogs down in strangled reticence where Gilead is shot through with light and humor despite its very serious content. Glory, whose interactions with the world occur largely through food and housework, reflects on the dumplings she’s making. She’s eaten some terrible ones, and “it occurred to her to wonder if they were ever good in the ordinary sense, if at best they were not just familiar, inoffensive.” Home is the dumpling of Robinson’s writing. She meticulously realizes the physical scene, the intense dreariness of an overstuffed old house, the process of digging out an old iris bed, of fixing an old car. The author reestablishes the relationship between Glory and Jack in a complex and believable way. But Home has none of the light that illuminates Gilead, none of the achingly felt love, none of the brilliant humor. In Gilead Ames is capable of seeing himself as comic, foolish, envious, jealous, and resentful, but the characters in Home are simply earnestly doughy. They really deserve better.


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