Marilynne Robinson: Home
Marilynne Robinson has published three novels. They all deal with family life and relationships between members of a family. Two of them, Gilead and Home, relate much the same events as seen from two families. The first novel, House-keeping, was published in 1980, and immediately established Robinson’s reputation, winning the PEN/Hemingway award for a first novel. It recounts the history of a family living in a remote town, Fingerbone, in the American mid-west, particularly two sisters, Ruth and Lucille. They are brought up by their grandmother, then by their comic great-aunts when their grandmother leaves, and finally by their mother’s eccentric sister Sylvie. Ruth comes under Sylvie’s spell, but Lucille wants to live a normal life, and runs away to live with her schoolteacher. Fingerbone is the site of disasters: it is where their grandfather dies in a spectacular train crash, where their mother dies when she drove a car over a cliff, and where the glacial lake on which the town is set floods, and brings disaster to everyone. The novel is a story of the girls’ struggle towards adulthood, written in the most beautiful language.
There was no other novel until 2004, 28 years later, when Gilead was published, winning the Pulitzer Prize. It is an extended letter to his four year-old son from the Reverend John Ames, in his seventies, nearing the end of his life, telling his son of his life, and of the life of his father, also a minister, and of his grandfather, another minister who preached soldiers into the civil war to free the slaves. It recounts the conflict between fathers and sons, and the conflicts of John Ames with his great friend, Boughton, and the conflict of his great friend, and himself, with Boughton’s prodigal son Jack Boughton.
Then after a gap of only four years, in 2008, this novel, Home, was published, winning the Orange Prize in 2009.
I suspect that this novel will divide readers over the reason why we read novels. When I first started reading novels seriously, that is, as something to talk to my friends about, I read a little book, Aspects of the Novel by E M Forster. Forster starts by telling us that ‘the fundamental aspect of the novel is its story-telling aspect, but [that] we shall voice our assent in different tones.’ He cites three readers who are asked what a novel is. One is vague: Well – I don’t know – it seems a funny sort of question to ask – a novel’s a novel; another is aggressive: ‘tells a story of course – he dismisses art, music, literature, ‘give me a good story’. The third is regretful: “Yes – oh dear yes – the novel tells a story.” This third man, Forster confesses, is himself. Telling a story is the fundamental aspect without which the novel could not exist. He “wishes it could be something else – melody, or the perception of truth, but not this low atavistic form.”
Forster’s own novels all tell a story, but there is something else more important to many of Forster’s readers (and to Forster himself). It is the exploration of the characters: why they are how they are, why they say and do what they do. No-one would deny that Howards End and A Room with a View tell stories that enthral, but it is the character development that makes them great novels. Are there readers who can rate them as great novels without thinking anything of the delineation and development of the characters?
This is also true of Marilynne Robinson’s novels; she has taken the novel even further in the direction in which Forster was heading. Where is the story in Home? It’s a poor timid creature. It hardly exists. Many readers will complain: nothing happens. Things do happen: Jack tries to kill himself, but he’s been destroying himself all his life, and in the end he leaves, and things are as they always were. The two old ministers struggle to maintain their children’s faith, and fail. Most readers will think that Jack and Glory have a view of the world that is healthier and more generous to others than that of the ministers, the ayatollahs of nonconformity.
What is important (to me, at any rate) is the way in which the language in which Marilynne Robinson writes shows how history lives on through generations, pervasively present even when betrayed and forgotten. She doesn’t tell us about this, she shows it through the words the characters speak. The ultimate expression of show not tell. This is a novel about family relationships, and how parents imprint certain beliefs and patterns of behaviour, or, because of some antipathy, lack of belief and an antagonistic behaviour, on their children. All the children leave, of course, in their own way, all except poor Glory.
Marilynn Robinson’s novels are not easy reading. They are hard work, and if you take them seriously you often find yourself putting them down, thinking about them, and then going back and re-reading a scene. There were times when I wasn’t sure at first what was happening. An example is the provision of clothes for Jack, some of them his father’s, and Jack’s response to these gifts, which in the end I thought was underlining Jack’s fear of being swallowed up again by his family, after he has so painfully broken away. And there are subtleties about this. Not all gifts of clothes are unacceptable. Clothes play an important part in the story – an example is the shirt with the sleeve embroidered by Jack’s woman friend.
A rewarding book to read, and a book to remember years afterwards.