Since I’ve got a review copy of Lila on my shelves (the third of Robinson’s novels to concern the good people of Gilead), I thought it was about time that I read Home (the second, from 2008, after 2004’s Gilead). When I read Gilead, I was completely bowled over. How could an elderly minister’s reminiscences create such a stunning work of fiction? On the strength of one book, Robinson became the living writer I admired the most. A subsequent read of Housekeeping did nothing to diminish this, and reading Home has cemented her position. Nobody else holds a candle to her.
Home covers much of the same time period as Gilead, although it is not a requirement to have read the former before you read the latter. Indeed, it would be interesting to read all three of this series in various orders – it’s been so long since I read Gilead that I have forgotten a lot of it, so it was a bit like coming to the characters for the first time. And, indeed, different characters take centre stage. While Gilead is narrated by the Rev. John Ames, Home looks at his neighbour’s house. Ames’ closest friend, Rev. Robert Broughton, is old and ailing. His wife has died, and he is looked after by the only child who has remained at home – Glory, a spinster who is kind, good, and a little regretful. The novel sees how they cope with the return, after twenty years, of Glory’s wastrel brother Jack.
His return will be familiar to readers of Gilead, and Ames certainly did not approve of him, but seeing him through the eyes of his family is a different matter. Glory is some years younger than him, separated by several siblings, and never felt that she knew him very well. Robert has longed for him to return – their dynamic is very much that of the Prodigal Son and the Forgiving Father – but even his patience and hope have their limits.
It’s very difficult to talk about great writers, or to pinpoint what makes them great. Home details the awkwardness of people who are biologically very close and emotionally very distant, but not through arguments or slamming doors. Instead (and no author does this better) Robinson shows us the silences – the emotions that family members cannot discuss, the past hurts they cannot confront, and the future hopes they dare not express. All the more impressive that this is done in the third person, so – although it feels like we know all three key players intimately – we are never actually taken into their perspective wholly. Being very close to my nuclear family, particularly my brother, I can’t quite understand the awkwardness of Glory and Jack’s relationship, but (being a family of introverts) I can understand the reluctance to discuss depths of emotions – and yet communicating them at the same time.
Like Gilead, there is a background of faith to the novel. But, where Gilead is a beautiful depiction of a life of faith, Glory is a little less certain. She seems occupied more with duty and goodness than with grace, try as she might. She sums up the theme of the book while musing on the Bible:
What a strange old book it was. How oddly holiness situated itself among the things of the world, how endlessly creation wrenched and strained under the burden of its own significance. “I will open my mouth in a parable. I will utter dark sayings of old, which we have heard and known, and our fathers have told us.” Yes there it was, the parable of manna. All bread is the bread of heaven, her father used to say. It expresses the will of God to sustain us in this flesh, in this life. Weary or bitter or bewildered as we may be, God is faithful. He lets us wander so we will know what it mean to come home.
‘Home’ is, unsurprisingly, the biggest quandary in Home. What makes a home? What does it mean to come home? For Glory, home is a place of safety and continuity, but also a place of disappointment and a sense of failure. For Jack, it is a mirage and somehow dangerous. For Robert, it is chiefly an ideal in his mind.
One of the loveliest things in both this novel and Gilead is the friendship between neighbouring ministers. Friendship is depicted so seldom in literature, and it is touching to see one that has proved far more constant and successful than romantic or paternal relationships. And for readers like me who dearly love Ames, it is a joy to see him again – albeit frustrating at how little we see of him! Not to mention illuminating to see a different vantage of a man that any reader of Gilead will know intimately. It’s like hearing your best friend described by somebody who only knows them a little.
I quote this passage partly because Ames is in it, but mostly because it’s a lovely example of how beautifully Robinson writes a domestic scene:
Then Ames arrived with Lila and Roddy, the three of them in their church clothes, and she took her father into the parlor with them, the company parlor, where they sat on the creaky chairs no one ever sat on. It had been almost forgotten that the were not there just to be dismally ornamental, chairs only in the sense that the lamp stand was a shepherdess. Ames was clearly bemused by the formality her father had willed upon the occasion. The room was filled with those things that seem to exist so that children can be forbidden to touch them – porcelain windmills and pagodas and china dogs – and Robby’s eyes were bright with suppressed attraction to them.
Home has so many nuances and is so rich in insight that it would be futile to go much further. I don’t love it as much as Gilead – perhaps because I missed the first-person voice that Robinson handles so extraordinarily – but I am still amazed by what a great work it is. Sometimes I wonder which writer from our time will be remembered in future generations and centuries. If there is any justice in posterity, Robinson will be among that number.