Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Review: Rendered perfection


Marilynne Robinson’s Home is the most beautiful novel I’ve read in ages. Glory and Jack Boughton are like the older, sadder, more burdensome versions of Scout and Jem Finch. The weight on their persons and their souls is just so poignant, so sharp, so immense that Robinson could not have created a more perfect novel.

Home takes place concurrently as Robinson’s previous novel Gilead, which won the Pulitzer Prize. Gilead was a series of letters written by an ageing Reverend Ames to his very young son, with the knowledge that Ames would not live to see him grow up. Home is written in third-person omniscience – which at first seems at odds with Gilead as the narrator is now somewhat removed from the interiority of situations. But ever so brilliantly, Robinson’s narrator is able to weave between persons in order to get closer to them, perhaps even more so than if it were told from someone’s perspective. Characters are fully flesh, fully naked to the world.

Glory comes home to Gilead to take care of her ailing and dying father, Reverend Boughton. She is thirty-eight, a former schoolteacher who gave up everything after she split with her fiancĂ© (who happened to be married). She throws away the four hundred fifty-two love letters written to her and returns home to her father. Glory and her father get on, but there is always a sense of discomfort. It doesn’t seem completely natural. And Glory at first feels resigned to the path life has chosen for her.

Then Jack enters. Jack is the prodigal Boughton son. The one who stole as a child. The one who ran off as a teen, never to come back for twenty years. The one who was an alcoholic. The one who won’t disclose his past. Glory is elated, not seeing her older brother for nearly two decades. Her father, even more so. What follows are pages of missed connections, regrets, coffee brewing, pancake making, baseball throwing, and the most intense, beautiful, and heartbreaking final pages, the likes I haven’t read since William Styron’s Sophie’s Choice. At least here there is a pervasive sense of optimism through all the pain.

Home is truly a story of not being able to say what one means to say, the pains of honesty, the intensity of being with family, and the sorrow that comes with living with yourself. One of the more striking and summarising passages happens as Glory ponders the end for all of them in the house: ‘Home. What kinder place could there be on earth, and why did it seem to them all like exile? Oh, to be passing anonymously through an impersonal landscape! Oh, not to know every stump and stone, not to remember how the fields of Queen Anne’s lace figured in the childish happiness they had offered to their father’s hopes, God bless him.’ There’s the struggle – between remembering and forgetting, of depth and superficiality, of pain and pleasure.

There are tones of Faulkner here – most notably Light in August – and for good reason. The themes of race and the structure of both novels seem to parallel one another (although I most certainly believe that Robinson pulls it off more successfully – I personally did not like Light in August at all). But even to compare this to another piece of literature, even Gilead feels like belittling the novel. Glory Boughton, giving up a life in order to be the overly weeping daughter who cooks and cleans all day, is such a heartbreaking character – as if things truly couldn’t go right with her. And then Jack Boughton is just an amplified version of that. His struggles seem to outdo Job’s.

That is not to suggest that this work is full of melancholy and psychological torture, a selection for Oprah’s Book Club. The narrative is in the hands of a master. Each of Marilynne Robinson’s novels (three novels in thirty years, two within the past five) is well-crafted and intensely thought out. Everything within comes naturally. Every word seems to have been weighed, placed in her hand to be analysed before placed on to the page. Home truly is about the pleasure of the text, and the pleasure of being with characters and company that you never want to leave.

Paperback releases in September 2009 by Picador.


Kari said…

So is the language like Faulkner? Because I find him difficult and boring to read, and this book sounds good.

Salvatore said…

No. I wouldn't say that the language is like Faulkner. Robinson is much more structured, much more gripping, much more in command. I feel like Faulkner got lucky most of the time and just went with it – I truly believe you can see that in his prose (and I'm sure I'll be hated for saying such things). With Robinson's writing, you can see that there was weight and thought, even though it feels so spontaneous. It's a much more direct and passionate writing style. Not sprawling like Faulkner's.