Home: A Novel
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008
336 pp., 28.0
Reviewed by Linda McCullough Moore
Marilynne Robinson at Large Again
There's no fit way to encapsulate the beauty of Robinson's language, the lyricism born and bred in earnestness, the brilliance of her understanding. Choppy quotes are clunky. Not that that will stop my trying.
Robinson would have us know things. Have us know forgiveness precedes not follows understanding. Forgive, she says, and "you will be ready to understand, and that is the posture of grace." She paints with tiny brush strokes, showing "Sympathy [that] would corrupt something wonderful, which secrecy and a kind of shame kept safe." She tells us of a God who "lets us wander so we will know what it means to come home."
She'd have us laugh out loud, with the preacher's treating salvation as if it were "a problem that had been sorted out between the Druids and the centurions at about the time of Hadrian," adding that "The doctrine of total depravity had served him well." And later, she has his children studying "deracination … angst and anomie," done "with the earnest suspension of doubt that afflicts the highly educable."
Robinson knows and does not fear to tell us what a thing a family can be, with the burden of "their endless, relentless loyalty." The parents with the hope their son would not be lost to them. "The one hope I couldn't put aside." says the father who doesn't ask for much, only everything, only wanting every day forever "the childish happiness they'd offered to their father's hopes."
This writer knows old age. The joke seeming to be that once very young, now very old, having been the same day after day, people at the end are somehow so utterly changed. Looking back on being young, the old man says, "it's like remembering that I used to be the sun and the wind." Now, his hair "brushed into a soft white cloud, like harmless aspiration, like a mist given off by the endless work of dreaming," he sleeps on. And finally he knows something like peacefulness with the "extinction of that last hope, like a perfect humility undistracted by the possible." And always memory. Standing in the sunlight "the wind hushing in the dusty lilacs of their childhood, laundry swaying on the lines where school clothes used to hang."
But it is Jack whose story breaks our hearts, as it surely should. We are made to understand the stark lunacy it is to think that he would one day get to know his family, come for Christmas, as though parents and siblings were only people. We see Jack with his sister "whiling away perdition together," reading to his sleeping father, his voice "courteous to the page he read from." Jack, laying out his alternatives to a slight by the Revered Ames as either confronting him, leaving town in a huff, or else "the only undamaging choice left to me. Which might also have the look of virtue, I believe." To forgive. As he prepares to go away again, he has "fallen back on estrangement, his oldest habit," the injury to him that "all of them were native to their life as he could never be." He experiences "none of the trust that sustained the most ordinary conversation."
What is the soul? his sister Glory asks. "It's what you can't get rid of." His reply. When she would assuage his pain, he tells her, "Let me get used to things the way they are. That's the biggest favor you can do me." Finally, the last morning, he seems to be "withdrawing into utter resignation, as if the old incandescence had consumed him before it flickered out."
Marilynne Robinson is in a category by herself, and that category is both fully staffed and up to any project. I hope this is gratuitous, but if you haven't read the essays in The Death of Adam, neither sleep nor eat till you have remedied the oversight. Her first novel Housekeeping is what I think a book should be. And now writing in Home of the same people in the same time and place as in her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Gilead, everything is different. These two books could not be less alike. And just because she can and perhaps must, Robinson has pages and pages of dialogue about theology here, people sitting on the porch as evening falls, discussing and dissecting the particulars. The reader slows his pace, he doesn't want to miss a word. Theology as conversation. She's pulled off the impossible. (I know whereof I speak.)