Tuesday, December 16, 2008


Home is Marilynne Robinson's third novel and, like the previous one, is set in the fictional Iowa town of Gilead. In fact it is the same story as Gilead but told from a different perspective: that of the Boughton family and black-sheep Jack's place in it. This is neither a sequel nor prequel to Gilead but rather a companion piece. it is as if Jane Austen had written Emma and then written the same story through the eyes of Mr Knightley.

Marilynne Robinson's use of a third person narrator in Home, allows us to closely observe the thoughts and feelings of the three members of the Boughton family who are caught up in the brief action of the book. Close observation is Marilynne Robinson's forte and reading her work is like looking at the many facets of a diamond with the aid of an expert jeweller.

The basic facts of Jack Boughton's story are already known to anyone who has first read Gilead; the reader, therefore, knows more than do Jack's father, the frail Reverend Boughton, and Glory, the youngest member of the family who has returned home to care for her father. We readers are, therefore, not concerned about the unfolding of a plot because we already know the secrets and can concentrate on the characters: their relationships, their reasons for keeping secrets, their misunderstandings and reactions to revelations.

The prose is exquisite, as we would expect from the woman who is described as "one of the greatest living novelists" by Bryan Appleyard. I finished both of her books (I have Housekeeping to look forward to as my Christmas treat to myself) with the feeling that I had experienced rather than read them:

She learned the word "waft" sitting in her mother's chair, breathing on a feather. Jack had come into the room, and the stir of air had floated it out of her hand. In those days the boys called her Glory B or Glory Bee or Glory Hallelujah or Runt or Pigtails. Sometimes instead of Grace and Glory they had called their little sisters Justification and Sanctification, which came near irritating their father. But in general her brothers had ignored her, Jack not so completely as the others. He had stood in the doorway that evening and watched the feather circle against the ceiling in the air he brought in with him, and then he had reached up and caught it lightly in his hand and given it back to her. "It just wafted away," he said. She might have been seven, so he would have been twelve. He was himself already then, solitary when he could be, gentle when the mood was upon him, a worry to them all as often as he was out of sight.

This passage illustrates Marilynne Robinson's ability to convey a world of detail in a minimum of words. In years to come, when her books are required reading for students of literature, long essays will be written about short paragraghs such as this.

I would love to discuss many aspects of Home with other readers. It would make a wonderful choice for a book group. The meaning of "home", judgement, forgiveness, belonging and exclusion are just a few of the themes begging to be discussed in depth. My admiration for her writing does not prevent me from disagreeing quite strongly with Marilynne Robinson's points of view on some issues. But I won't go into that here. If you haven't yet read it, I suggest that you put it high on your wish list. Then perhaps might we have an on-line book group discussion in the New Year.


  1. Since you persuaded me to read it, Stephen, I'm hoping for lots of opinions from you.

  2. Do you think Gilead should be read first? I've never read her books. Years ago, I did see the movie, Housekeeping, and it kind of put me off her work. But I do know movies can be very different from the books. Anyhow, you wrote such an intriguing review. Very, very good.

  3. Nan's question is an interesting one that I have been pondering for some time myself. It's hard to tell how one's perceptions of the two novels would change if one read Home ahead of Gilead. It's one of the many things one would certainly want to discuss in a book group. Ms Robinson intended that either could be the first (or only) read.


    Gilead is available in paperback; that may affect your choice of starter. If you enjoy these later works I would imagine that you would also enjoy Housekeeping, which shares many of the themes that are found in Home, although it is somewhat darker in tone.

  4. Nan and Stephen, I have also been thinking about this. Although it is not a sequel, my initial view is that Home has more meaning if Gilead has been read first but it would be interesting to hear from someone who has only read Home, or read them in reverse order.

  5. Oh, I did try. I just listened to 3 cds of Housekeeping and I just couldn't finish or take it. Too depressing. I'm not so wild about 'crazy' people, and I feel so badly for those girls. I have a hard time with poor parenting books. :<)

  6. Nan, I'm sorry to hear that. I haven't had time to get started on Housekeeping yet but I really became totally absorbed in Gilead and Home. I'll let you know what I think when I have read it.

  7. Nan, I had intended that you return to Housekeeping after reading Gilead and Home.

    There was an interesting (if brief) review of Gilead in the LRB http://www.lrb.co.uk/v27/n08/hadl01_.html that discusses Housekeeping in some detail.


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