Marilynne Robinson’s second novel Gilead—her first novel Housekeeping was published in 1980—won the 2005 Pulitzer Prize, unsurprisingly considering the beauty of its execution but perhaps surprisingly considering the subject.
Gilead consists of a letter to his son by an elderly minister, Reverend John Ames, who has heart disease and whose time has come. He wishes to recount his family history, particularly that of his father and grandfather, who were also preachers, and to impart some wisdom on the nature of faith.
Unlike his gun-slinging grandfather, Ames is a gentle soul. He has followed family tradition like a good son but “the rejoicing in heaven will be comparatively restrained,” he acknowledges. The narrative, too, is gentle, moving like an old man. Ames pushes a little, meditates a little, pushes some more by reaching back into the past, then meditates some more.
Like Housekeeping, there’s the same cloistered setting—post-war American small town, empty streets, and houses with attic windows and porches. But where the atmosphere of Housekeeping derives primarily from the seriousness of winter—muddy roadside piles of snow, coats, hats and gloves—Gilead is infused more with the long warmth of summer. Ames’s friend, Boughton, sits on his porch under the honeysuckle into the evening, while boys play baseball in the street. There is evidence of decline, the ubiquitous burden of small towns. But there are traces of peace and hope, which Ames says these towns have always sheltered. While the narrator of Housekeeping is a misfit in the small town, Ames’ vision is without rose-coloured glasses, instead loving and accepting of the town and its people.
There is also a similarity in the narrator’s strength of voice but while Housekeeping’s voice, is that of a young woman reflecting on her childhood, in Gilead, the voice has the gentleness and wisdom of age. Housekeeping’s tone, bemused but turning slightly sour and lonely, also includes some beautifully philosophical passages. But, as brilliant as they are, there is a disjuncture between these passages and the fact that this is the voice of a teenager of average intellectual ability turned drifter.
There is no such problem with Gilead. There is a seamless weaving of the mortal and the spiritual in the character of Ames, partly because he sees that the mortal always has spiritual significance. Ames writes and prays. With Boughton—also a minister—he sits in the dark and talks and prays, and this all seems completely natural, as it should be.
For Augustine, existence is impossible without memory. Integrated with Ames’ memories are his thoughts on why being is such a joy, and why, subsequently, it is so hard to explain. As for God’s existence, explaining it is “like building a ladder to the moon.” There is an “inadequacy in argument about ultimate things.” He warns his son—and Robinson warns us—that while people want religion defended and seem surprised at both the depth of attacks against Christianity, and the lack of possible responses, “nothing true can be said about God from a posture of defence.”
When tackled over the same old theological conundrums by Boughton’s son, Jack, he bristles, later thinking that defensiveness only undermines faith: “When we think we are protecting ourselves, we are struggling against our rescuer.” On the other hand, he believes all modern philosophical attacks on Christianity are meaningless. Although he doesn’t immediately explain why, the novel as a whole does. The wonderful mystery of existence points to a Creator unharmed by the measly shots fired by a few human philosophers.
This mystery of existence in a domestic setting with all its accumulating details is further expanded on in Robinson’s new novel Home, which returns to Gilead and the same cast of characters, with whom, Robinson says, she was not quite finished. Home is not so much a sequel as the view from an alternative window of the same events narrated in Gilead. Because it takes this alternative viewpoint, different things move into the foreground and background, creating, among other things, an intriguing study of perspective. Written in moreconventional third-person narrative (unlike Gilead and Housekeeping), there is something deeply empathetic about the way Robinson sees the same passage of time through the eyes of the various characters.
The action moves from the household of Ames to that of his friend, Boughton, where the story becomes a kind of reworking of Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son, with Jack—godson of Ames—and his daughter, Glory, taking, respectively, the roles of prodigal son and elder brother.
It is the story of two different types of homecoming. For Glory, it is anything but glorious, as she retreats from a failed engagement and dreams of domestic bliss. Her role of carer for her dying father is, while undoubtedly loving, a fallback and an admission of failure of her “own venture into the world.”
As we know from Gilead, Jack has grown from an inscrutably mischievous child to an adult painfully self-aware of his shortcomings. He, too, is drawn to his dying father, wanting to make amends but, as always, unable to slip into the familiar family setting with the same ease as his siblings.
Home is a more bitter and sad novel than Gilead—where the love runs deep, so, too, can the hurt. Home covers a range of difficult familial issues: the burden of memory, the difficulties of communication, the pull of family despite past hurts, the equivocation of children who need to choose between keeping parents happy and being themselves, the aching expectation of parents. All this is played out (mostly) in a couple of rooms in the Boughton household, particularly the kitchen, where Jack and Glory talk, over a seemingly- endless succession of breakfast pancakes.
This is a story that, on the surface, amounts to not much more than the domestic manoeuvres of an unremarkable family whose day has passed. Yet within this family, the things that run down the generations and horizontally between siblings make for exquisite drama. Ames writes (in Gilead), “I am aware that my memory has made much of very little.” While he means this negatively, in making much of seemingly little lies the beauty of Robinson’s vision.