Friday, June 10, 2016

the last book I read

Home by Marilynne Robinson.

The "home" in question is the Gilead, Iowa home of Robert Boughton, former Presbyterian minister. Formerly the home of his wife and eight children (four boys, four girls) as well, but times change and stuff happens - his wife died and the children all drifted off into their own lives.

A bit of orientation with regard to dates - the year when these events take place is never explicitly stated in the book, but references to the unrest in Montgomery place the date somewhere between 1955 and 1957.

But, now, here is daughter Glory, the youngest child, back to stay for an unspecified length of time after the breakdown of her lengthy engagement to a fiancĂ© who eventually turned out to be married to someone else, and moreover not especially keen on paying back all the money Glory had given him. So, chastened, here she is back for a while, which basically means cooking and cleaning and tending to Dad rather than kicking back on the porch with a mint julep.

Hot on Glory's heels, and more surprisingly to everyone, comes her brother Jack, the black sheep of the family, fleeing some unspecified disaster in his own life. Jack's history includes a troublesome childhood, getting a local girl pregnant and then leaving his family to pick up the pieces when the baby died, alcoholism and disappearing off the radar for years at a time. Just to illustrate the point, he arrives hungover and with just the clothes on his back, his suitcase having been lost in some ill-remembered incident.

Jack and Glory and their father fall into a domestic routine, though relations between Jack and his father are polite but awkward at first. Of course, Gilead being a small town, word gets around, and this creates some tension, since Jack's name is mud in certain quarters, not least with Reverend Ames, Robert Boughton's old friend, ministerial opposite number (Congregationalist vs. Presbyterian, whatever the difference is) and theological sparring partner. No baying mob arrives at the house with pitchforks - it isn't really that sort of book - but there are a few tense dinners at the house with Reverend Ames in attendance and a couple of pointed theological discussions during which Jack (a well-educated and Bible-literate guy despite his dissolute ways) tries to tease out an answer to the mystery of his own nature. Was he born bad? Has God cursed him in some way? Boughton sr. struggles with similar questions: is Jack the way Jack is because of some deficiency in parental love? If so, how come the other seven children didn't turn out the same way?

Jack tries to ingratiate himself with Reverend Ames by attending church, but after receiving a fire-and-brimstone sermon that he feels is specifically directed at him he falls off the wagon somewhat and is discovered in a pitiful state in the garage by Glory, who helps him clean up and make himself respectable.

Jack's disintegration isn't Glory's only problem, though, as Reverend Boughton's health is starting to fail. This is a problem for Jack, too, as he has a desire to make his peace with his father in some ill-defined way before either his father dies or Jack's desire to disappear and be away from responsibility and scrutiny gets the better of him, as he's self-aware enough to know that it eventually will. But what can Jack say? That he's found Jesus and repented of his evil ways? That would be a lie, but is the sin of lying outweighed by the comfort it would bring his father? But then, if he did that, would his father believe him anyway?

Inevitably, by the time Jack has agonised over what to say, his father has deteriorated to the point where he only intermittently recognises who Jack is. Nonetheless Jack says his piece, and, as the other siblings are summoned to oversee what it's assumed will be their father's last few days, Jack slips quietly away.

There is an unexpected coda: after Jack has departed and before the other siblings arrive Glory gets a visit from Della, Jack's wife from St. Louis and the woman he has been writing to intermittently since arriving at the Boughton house, presumably to explain and/or apologise for whatever misdemeanour led to him setting out on the road in the first place. It turns out that not only is Della black (and hence very ill-at-ease in rural Iowa) but that she and Jack have a son together. Once she's discovered that Jack has gone, Della departs, with Glory promising to pass on any communication.

As you can see, it's not a thrill-a-minute action-fest, any more than it is a slapstick laugh riot. Obviously it's not intended to be either of these things, though, and it is what it is, a slow, meditative character-driven story in which stuff does happen, but low-key stuff of the kind that actually happened to people in 1950s Iowa, i.e. not involving transsexual zombie Hitler or exploding spaceships.

What it also is is a book suffused with religion - Jack himself is portrayed as an unbeliever, but even he seems to have a yearning for the kind of meaning (however illusory) that religion provides to some of its adherents. And of course Boughton sr. and Ames are well into the old theology, exchanging cherry-picked Bible quotes with each other to support some arcane doctrinal point or other. All of which sounds like it ought to be supremely irritating to the atheist reader, but it isn't, because these are wholly convincing characters. Many characters in many books do things and hold views I disagree with or disapprove of, after all, and if I insisted on only reading books populated by versions of myself it would be very dull indeed. So my enjoyment of Home is (obviously) a testament to Robinson's skill as a writer - just to illustrate this point, when she engages in a more informal discussion of science and religion about a third of the way into this longish Paris Review interview it certainly does stray into supremely irritating territory fairly quickly.

It's not just about old men quoting the Bible at each other, though: it's about people's ambiguous relationship with ideas like "home" and "family" - simultaneously yearning to be there but feeling stifled when you are there, for instance. It's about the mysteriousness of other people's character and motivations, and even the mysteriousness of one's own. It's about what remains unspoken as much as what is spoken - Jack clearly decides early on that he can never tell his father that he's married to a black woman, for instance.

The key other thing to say is that this is a sort of companion to Robinson's hugely successful and award-laden 2004 novel Gilead, portraying essentially the same set of events from a different point of view (Gilead was a series of letters from Ames to his young son). It's not a sequel, and Robinson's view is that the books can be read in any order you like. As this New York Times review puts it, the two books
do not coexist in a relation of chronological sequence or thematic priority, but instead turn together like enmeshed gears impelling a single narrative machine
- a bit like the first three books of the Alexandria Quartet, in other words. I suppose it's a measure of how much I enjoyed Home that I'll be seeking out Gilead on future book-buying trips (though these are strictly rationed these days). Home itself won the Orange Prize (it's the jollier-sounding Baileys Prize these days) in 2009 - previous winners featured on this blog are Bel Canto (2002) and We Need To Talk About Kevin (2005).

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