Home, Marilynne Robinson, 2008, Virago, 339pp.
Last year while on holiday I read Marilynne Robison's novel Gilead. Very good it was too. Last week we headed for Portugal for a nice half-term break. We had never flown before as a family, so it was something of an adventure for us. The weather was really hot. We enjoyed exploring lovely old towns like Armaçao de Pêra, where we stayed, Albufera and Faro, and relaxing on some of the wonderful Algarve beaches. I also took the opportunity to catch up with Robinson's latest novel, Home.
Home is in fact a companion piece to Gilead. It is set in the same time and place and shares the same main characters. It was good to get acquainted once more with Presbyterian minister, Robert Boughton, his best friend, Congregationalist pastor, John Ames and their respective families. Gilead is written in the form of an extended letter written by the dying Ames to his young son, Robby. The novel's dramatic tensions are provided by Jack, Boughton's ne're do well son. Ames fears that Jack has designs on his wife and child and is worried for their welfare after his death.
Home is told from the point of view of Glory, Boughton's youngest daughter, who returns to the family home after a failed romance. Near the beginning of the novel, Jack also returns home after severing contact with his love ones twenty years previously. In Gilead Jack is for the most part a creepy and unsympathetic character. However, in Home Robinson reveals another side to the complex and elusive prodigal son as he joins Glory in caring for their ailing father. At first Robert Boughton is delighted that his beloved Jack has come home, but as time goes on his erratic and difficult behaviour further weakens the already frail old man.
The interplay of the two novels, covering the same events from differing points of view makes for fascinating reading. Partly to please his father, the irreligious Jack goes Ames' church one Sunday morning. Ames is preaching on Genesis 21, where the Lord commands Abraham to send Hagar and Ishmael away. In Gilead, Ames tells us that as a dying man, he could identify with Abraham in having to entrust his son to the Lord. That was his main point in the message, that we must entrust our loved-ones to God. However, Ames is conscious that it seemed cruel of the Lord to tell Abraham to send Hagar and Ishmael into the wilderness and he wants to make it clear that the Bible in no way condones child cruelty, quoting Matthew 18:6. As he expands on this point, Ames notices the ashen faced Jack Boughton sitting in the congregation, grinning at him.
In Home we get to listen to the sermon from Jack's point of view. As a young man Jack had got a girl pregnant and then abandoned her and their child to live in squalor. The fruit of this illicit union died, aged only three years of age. Jack takes Ames' sermon as a personal dig at his moral failings and is outraged at being got at in church.
Jack had always been the black sheep of the Boughton family. Even as a child he didn't really fit in, preferring to indulge in petty thievery than join his siblings for a sing-song around the piano. As an adult he succumbed to alcoholism and spent time in prison for an unspecified crime. One of the reasons that he failed to return home for twenty years, even for his mother's funeral was that he couldn't trust himself not to behave badly and so add to his poor father's grief. But what made Jack the bad boy of the family? He knows that his misdemenours cause misery both to him and those who love him, but it doesn't appear that he can change his ways. He sees himself as a living confirmation of Jeremiah 13:23. At one point in the novel, he asks Glory if his soul might be saved. She tells him that she likes his soul as it is, which doesn't exactly help.
When Ames and his family are invited to the Boughton's for dinner, Jack asks his father and Ames whether he might be a reprobate, irretrievably doomed to destruction. Their answer is inconclusive, but Lila, Ames' wife holds out the hope that sinners can be saved and people can change.
As Jack turns to drink on being rebuffed by his estranged partner Della, one wonders whether he might ever change. Redemption is only possible by the grace of God. Jack leaves home once again, probably never to return, leaving Glory to look after their father. Glory muses on the turn of events in her life and that of her troublesome brother. At first she is distressed, but then something happens that makes it all make sense. She reflects, "The Lord is wonderful."