Gilead and Home reverberate with the compassion that Marilynne Robinson feels for her tragic creations, says well-known novelist
Reading a book by an author you've never read before is like entering unknown territory. Never having heard either of Gilead, or its author Marilynne Robinson, I was prepared for anything, even disappointment. But once I'd got past the slight sense of disorientation reading a book by a new author brings on, there was only admiration. And this is only the author's second novel. The first, Housekeeping, was written twenty years before Gilead. Four years after Gileadcame Home, a companion novel to Gilead.Homeis not a sequel to Gilead, nor a prequel of it, either; very unusually, both novels occupy exactly the same period of time, they have the same characters, almost the same events and strangely, once, exactly the same conversation. These novels, set in the 1950s, are located in an America of earnest Christianity, of living by the Bible, a world of Churches and theological discussions. Besides, the main characters are two men in their seventies. Surprisingly, none of this matters.
Gileadcomes in the form of a letter written by the Reverend John Ames, 77 year old pastor of a Church in Gilead, to his seven year old son. Knowledge of a cardiac condition has prompted this letter, so that he can tell his son “of things I could have told you if you had grown up with me.” So he speaks of his father and grandfather, both preachers like him, he tells old stories of abolitionists and the Civil War. There are meditative passages, reflections on the beauty of the world, his love of life, on aging and dying. But, above all, the novel throbs with Ames' great love for his son and his wife, a woman whom he fell in love with the day she, a stranger to him and to Gilead, appeared in his Church. “I was sick with love,” he says. He speaks of her with enormous tenderness, always referring to her as “your dear mother”. He still knows nothing of her past, though the habitual sadness on her face hints at a life of hardship. Into this innocent, loving family comes Jack, reprobate son of Ames' lifelong friend, the Reverend Robert Boughton, Jack, who has been away for twenty years, “a wound in his family's heart” Ames, troubled by Jack's growing closeness to his wife and son, agonises over whether he should tell his wife of Jack's discreditable past. At the same time, he struggles against these feelings, because he knows his suspicions make him uncharitable to his friend's son and because “the grace of God is sufficient to any transgression and that to judge is wrong”. Ultimately Jack solves the problem by leaving Gilead.
Jack's coming home is at the heart of Home, but since Homecomes to us through Glory, Jack's youngest sister, the homecoming becomes a matter of great rejoicing. Not much happens in Home, either. The brother and sister talk, awkwardly at first, more intimately later. They work in the garden, they look after their father, Glory cooks, Jack repairs their old car, takes his father and Glory for a drive. Boughton rejoices in all of this, most of all in Jack's being home. Just as Gilead is animated by Ames' love for his wife and son, Homeis almost incandescent with Boughton's love for Jack, the most undeserving of his eight children. But love brings fear along with it and Boughton and Glory live with the fear of losing Jack again. Each time Jack goes out, Glory watches the clock, listens for sounds of his return. When he is home, she sits up with Jack until they both know that the bars have closed. Though Boughton and Glory understand that Jack has come for his own reasons, that he will go when he wants to, they watch in silent terror as finally Jack methodically dismantles the structure of his stay at home. “Who will look after you?” Glory asks. “It is a curse, an affliction,” Boughton says, “to love my own son.”
A blurb on the front cover calls Home ‘the saddest book'. It is more than sad, it is tragic. Jack is an almost classically tragic figure, a man who can never belong anywhere, who knows he can only hurt those who love him. “Don't give me more money,” he tells Glory. “I might do something unsightly.” Some of the most terrible moments in the novel are when he gets drunk and Glory finds him looking truly unsightly. Her first concern is to save her father from seeing him this way, but Boughton knows what has happened. Both novels end with Jack's departure, both give us his reason for his coming home. And we realise why Jack so passionately debated segregation and the struggle of the coloured people in the South with his father and Ames.
It has become difficult to find words for a good novel; most words, overused by publishers' blurbs, have become stale. Yet, however clichéd it is, ‘ remarkable' is a word these novels demand. Not many authors can handle concepts like transgression, grace, forgiveness, perdition and predestination as naturally and convincingly as Robinson does. And, this without disconcerting the reader, because these concepts are integral to the characters' lives. Equally remarkable is the skill that gives two entirely different perspectives in the two books in an exquisitely nuanced manner, the skill that shows us, in words that never cross the threshold of quietness, the wonder and the anguish of love through the trivia of daily life. The language is a triumph, nearing the awesome simplicity of the Bible. Reading these two novels is truly a rich and rewarding experience.
What place do these novels of quiet beauty have in today's market-driven literary world in which books have to flamboyantly announce themselves? The fact that Gilead won the Pulitzer and Home the Orange Prize this year partly answers the question. The truth, however, is that these novels are not only for today; they are timeless. Flannery O'Connor's writing is said to have been concerned with questions of grace and free will, with destiny, with sin and mercy. The same can be said of these novels. Which gives these two novels their true place - as part of the tradition of great American writing.