I have been consciously avoiding Marilynne Robinson. I would react the same way to any author who chooses such an unappealing word, Housekeeping (doomed for its associations with housework), as the title of her first novel. However, her third novel, Home, read as part of this 2009 Orange shortlist readathon, has vaporised all prior prejudice and preconception.
As I have not read Gilead, the companion novel to Home, I can offer no comments about how this new novel enhances the previous one (You can find those here). This review will concentrate on Home as a standalone novel – make that a standalone break-me-down emotional experience that leaves me gasping with the pain of its characters.
Jack returns home, without explanation, after an absence and silence of 20 years. His elderly father is dying. His younger sister, Glory, has returned home to nurse her father to his grave. Why did Jack leave in the first place? Why is he returning? It’s becomes obvious that he has not fared well, that he is seeking refuge, but why, from what? How can the family deal with the pain and resentment of the past? Can they reconcile? All subjects that Robinson deals with in the most unprepossessing way, her prose reflecting the way the family skirt around each other, afraid of the past, the present and the future. Giving each other space … the most important thing being that he is here and that they prove how much they love him, the past notwithstanding, so that he will choose to stay.
Jack, a misfit, a loner, a troublemaker from youth up. His father, a preacher. Jack’s crimes, by modern day standards, misdemeanours of youth. Not so then. A huge problem to his father’s reputation. Rather than conform he leaves. 20 years later he returns with a secret. Remorseful only to an extent.
I don’t want you to give a damn about me. Any of you. I never did.
At least now he’s matured enough to recognise that for the asinine remark that it is. But he still makes it and he still feels it.
For Glory and her father, desperate for Jack to stay, careful of the boundaries he sets, this is heartbreaking. It’s a signal that they are as helpless as ever they were in the face of what must feel to them an alien creature. They reproach themselves ceaselessly but strive to contain their anger and, it must be said, their not unreasonable hurts. Finally the father approaches emotional honesty, that which-must-not-be-approached but will it pave the way for a fresh start?
Why do I have to care so much? It seemed like a curse and an affliction to me. To love my own son. How could that be? I have wondered about it many times.
Jack’s story is counterbalanced by Glory’s. Now 38, still unmarried, she has returned home under duress. Life for her, away from home, was also full of bitter disappointments. Her secrets not something her father likely to appreciate. So he is told only that which he can digest. Glory thereby showing an inner sense of duty and a consideration for others that Jack can only pretend. There’s only one ending for the father – but what of the son or daughter? Who will stay? Who will go? Will either be happy? Where are the comforts of home to be found?
If it sounds sad, it is sad. I mourned on finishing the book. For the father now dead. For Glory. Tellingly not for Jack. I also mourned the end of a flawless novel. Now that is a very rare thing indeed.