Had she not become a writer, it is easy to imagine Marilynne Robinson might have been a theologian instead. Or, perhaps it is fair to say that she is both. Throughout her concise body of work, Robinson has mined the traditions of American spiritual literature, harkening back to an earlier cultural landscape where religion, and American Protestantism in particular, didn't carry with it its current political animus -- the evangelical's fervor versus the ironist's disdain. Robinson, in her essay collection The Death of Adam, has been blunt about her interest in restoring the legacy of Calvinism and about the family as its site of restoration. There is, throughout her prose, a heightened sensitivity to the possibility of grace, and of human connection as its own kind of redemption. "Imagine that someone failed and disgraced came back to his family," she writes in her essay "Family," "and they grieved with him, and took his sadness upon themselves, and sat down together to ponder the deep mysteries of human life. This is more human and more beautiful, I propose, even if it yields no dulling of pain, no patching of injuries." In a way, Home is this imagining -- a novel no less nuanced, no less morally conflicted for the current of devotion that forms its center.
Home takes its place alongside Robinson's 2004 novel Gilead. Less its sequel than its counterpart, it tells the concurrent story, set in 1956, of Reverend Robert Boughton, best friend to Gilead's narrator, John Ames. Where Gilead was a self-reckoning in the guise of an epistolary novel -- it takes the form of a letter to Ames's young son -- Home is a structurally more traditional, simmering novel about the fragility, and endurance, of familial bonds. Here, Ames recedes into the background as Robinson shifts her focus to Boughton's wayward son Jack, who has returned home after a 20-year absence just as his father's health begins to fall into an irreparable decline. Jack will be familiar to readers of Gilead; in that novel, he played Ames's moral foil, the man whose presence reveals the blind spots in the reverend's seemingly boundless capacity for grace. Also returned to the family homestead is Jack's younger sister Glory, who has come to nurse the ailing Boughton and, more painfully, to seek refuge from a failed engagement. The coincidence of their homecomings gives rise to an unlikely friendship between the two siblings; Glory, with her preternatural sensitivity, proves the only person able to draw out Jack, whose guarded manner and sardonic evasions do little to conceal the ravages of his alcoholism and troubled childhood.
Robinson's nonfiction tends to offer safe harbor for some of history's scorned souls: figures like John Brown, John Calvin, and Karl Marx, whose legacies, she feels, have done them wrong. Though hardly a figure of historic import, Jack Boughton has his place here, too -- he is a man who, after Ames's fraught indictment over the course of Gilead, would seem to need his own literary rehabilitation. In Ames's portrait, Jack "doesn't have the look of a man who has made good use of himself," whereas for Glory this very wastedness is a spur to compassion, however wary:
Twenty years was long enough to make a stranger of someone she had known far better than this brother of hers, and here he was in her kitchen, pale and ill at ease and in no state to receive the kindness prepared for him, awaiting him, even then wilting and congealing into the worst he could have meant by the word "lunch." And what an ugly word that was anyway.
Like Robinson, her characters are attuned to the latent cruelties of language. The Boughton household is one in which emotional openness must compensate for verbal withholding. Even more than Housekeeping and Gilead, Home is a novel that operates by elision (perhaps because, unlike the two prior works, Home is written in the third person). This desultory quality is as much a result of Robinson's delicately tender prose as it is the inwardness of her characters. Glory, whose perspective largely governs the narrative, is circumspect about her own past. While the specifics of her fiancé's betrayal are never quite laid out in full, her homecoming nonetheless marks a stark counterpoint to the life she had imagined: "She had dreamed of a real home for herself and the babies, and the fiancé, a home very different from this good and blessed and fustian and oppressive tabernacle of Boughton probity and kind intent."
Kindness is invoked by the Boughton family with an almost incantatory repetition -- Jack, in particular, acknowledges his sister's gestures of care as a way to close out conversation. "Thanks, Glory. That's kind," Jack will say, releasing her from any attempt to absolve the sins of his younger days just as the dialogue begins to touch upon the wrongdoings of his past. This is not to say Jack is insincere -- quite the contrary, as Robinson is a master of authorial empathy -- but that his family's forgiveness is as much a source of pain as it is a relief. Jack seems incapable of believing himself worthy of the unconditional love his sister and father, still devout Presbyterians where his own religious upbringing has failed him, offer so unabashedly.
Home is, in many regards, flesh on the skeletal plot of Gilead. Where Gilead looked backward into the Midwest's abolitionist past, Home tends to linger in the present. Again setting her novel on the cusp of the social upheavals of the 1960s, Robinson this time pulls the politics of the age into a more ready backdrop. As we know from Gilead (but Glory and Reverend Boughton do not), Jack's common-law wife, Della, from whom he has separated under pressure from her family and the force of his own dissipation, is black. The incursion of a television into the household brings the simmering conflict between father and son -- a difference in worldview and temperament without any tangible cause -- to a head. When Jack grows indignant over a news report about what can only be Autherine Lucy's expulsion from the University of Alabama in that year, the reverend's best attempt at diplomacy is to remark, "I have nothing against the colored people. I do think they're going to need to improve themselves, though, if they want to be accepted." As she has so often over the course of her work, Robinson appears to be again offering a subtle jab at the failure of contemporary Protestantism to make good on the progressive legacy of its abolitionist forebears.
Home is not in any strict sense a political novel, but one that takes place unavoidably in a world whose complexity is beginning to outstrip what the Boughtons' Presbyterian upbringing has prepared them to accommodate. Jack and Glory, bonded together by the failures of their respective pasts, share a sense of "the gradual catastrophe" of entry into the broader world. Robinson puts forth her own question: "What does it mean to come home?" For both the Boughton children, there is no easy answer. Their return to Gilead, to a life and time rich in the solace of forgiveness and grace, is as likely to reopen old wounds as it is to prove a source of healing. But this is what Robinson understands so well: the warmth of her prose becomes a form of communion with the characters she has created, an enactment of the mercy she would have them show one another. Hers is a vision more human, and more beautiful, for her willingness to take their sadnesses upon herself and to grieve with them. --Amelia Atlas
Amelia Atlas's reviews have appeared in the New York Sun, 02138, and the Harvard Book Review.