Remember how much I loved Marilynne Robinson’s novel Gilead? Home is not exactly the sequel, but the companion volume to Gilead, brandly-newly released. And, if possible, I love it more than Gilead.
The story of Home occurs concurrently with the story of Gilead, among the same characters but told from a different point of view that reveals so much more. The Reverend John Ames, the central character and narrator of Gilead, is a peripheral character in Home, which takes place in the house of his lifelong friend Reverend Robert Boughton. (The two men are aging ministers, Congregationalist and Presbyterian respectively, in the fictional town of Gilead, Iowa in the 1950s).
As in Gilead, Rev. Boughton’s prodigal son — the one wayward boy among his eight children — Jack Boughton, has come home after twenty years’ absence, and his homecoming unearths old ghosts and raises difficult questions, not least for Jack himself. Jack Boughton is an utterly compelling character, the kind of man I have tried to write about at least twice but have never gotten close to capturing with such brilliance, warmth and sadness. He is, in many ways, the main character, but the point of view is that of Glory, another character I found very easy to care about, Jack’s younger sister who has come home, in middle age, to live with her dying father after her own respectable and virtuous life has left her broken and disappointed. The bond that’s forged between Jack and Glory, and the relationship both of them have with their dying father — a genuinely good Christian man whose lifelong faith is challenged by the return of the son he has always loved, always feared for, and always forgiven — is depicted with such utter candour and perceptiveness it’s breathtaking.
Marilynne Robinson is, quite simply, a writer who makes lesser writers (like me) weep in despair even as we want to sing in triumph for the sheer joy of reading such a book. Why write at all, knowing that you’ll never be able to write like this? The book is filled with rich, intense detail, so minutely depicted and each note so perfect that it seems every one is necessary to build up this complex, lovely, heartbreaking picture of three people locked in the endless dance that is love and family and the life of faith.
I said when I reviewed Gilead that this is what Christian fiction should be like, and isn’t — brilliantly written literary fiction, the best of anything out there, that also celebrates and explores the Christian faith and how it impacts real lives. Faith and hope and grace (and glory — those being the names of Rev. Boughton’s four daughters) are never easy or cheap in this novel, but they are always absolutely real.
I tried to read this book slowly (which, as you know, is nearly impossible for me), partly because I never wanted it to end, and partly because I was afraid the ending would break my heart. Sure enough, I didn’t get the resolution I’d hoped for after the end of Gilead, though the ending of Home does take us one tiny step further down the hard road of redemption. There are no easy, sentimental happy endings with Marilynne Robinson; she leaves the reader to imagine their own ending, with enough hope to believe that grace will, in the end, touch everyone who longs for it.
There’s no more suspense about what will be the number one book on my Top Ten list for 2008, because there’s no way I will read a better-written, more moving, more beautiful book than Home in the next six weeks. Perhaps I never will again.