Home by Marilynne Robinson won the Orange Prize back in 2009. I have read 'Housekeeping', her first novel from 1980, twice and love it. By coincidence the film adaptation was on the other night and I watched it, but it was sorely disappointing, not really capturing anything for the true atmosphere of the book or even the characters. I started reading 'Home', and in the first few pages it mentions Gilead (the place) so I looked it up to check it wasn't a sequel to 'Gilead' the novel, but found that it is set in the same place, the stories running concurrently. 'Home' follows the Boughton family, and the return of the prodigal son, Jack. It is about the troubled relationship between Jack and his father, though it is narrated from the point of view of Glory, the youngest daughter, also returned home to care for her dying father.
Set in very small town America, in the 1950's, with it's very small town attitudes mixed with a religious and social conservatism that is very confining Jack seems to have lived his whole life somewhat on the outside of everything, even his own family, never quite feeling like he belonged. After an absence of twenty years he seems to have come home to try and make peace with his father. Glory has returned following a lengthy failed engagement, during which it appears she has been swindled out of quite a bit of money, and a marriage that never happened, but which she keeps secret from her father and the local community. Jack has hit rock bottom, having been an alcoholic for many years and then in prison, but he too is hiding from a collapsed relationship, hoping the woman in question might forgive whatever depths he has fallen to. Her writing is just wonderful, so good that it allows me to skate over the continuous references to god, faith, souls, prayer, heaven and belief on general. It allows me too to skate over the imponderables of a morality and values that I find meaningless. They spend so much time and effort being concerned about things that don't really matter, mainly what other people think of them. And they all seem so desperate for the approval of the Reverend Ames (the subject of 'Gilead') but who I came to dislike intensely for his moral judgments on them. Don't read the book expecting anything dramatic to happen. Their days unfold quietly, between eating and sleeping and caring for their father and domestic chores they talk a little bit, but rarely about the important things. They both are determined to shoulder their separate burdens alone and not share them with their sibling.
Lovely quotes, to show you that the book is worth reading after making it sound very dull:
"Not that they had been especially presentable even while the house was in its prime. Hide-and-seek had seen to that, and croquet and badminton and baseball. "Such times you had!" her father said, as if the present slight desolation were confetti and candy wrappers left after the passing of some glorious parade." (p.4)
"Again the starter and the engine, and after a minute or two the rattle and pop of gravel as the DeSoto eased backwards out of the barn. It gleamed darkly and demurely, like a ripe plum." (p.168)
"Glory went to look in on her father. He lay on his right side, his face composed, intent on sleep. His hair had been brushed into a soft white cloud, like harmless aspiration, like a mist given off by the endless work of dreaming. (p.317)
I like this about Jack; it sums up quite why he didn't fit in. He didn't share the sense that the family had of being a unit, of thinking and believing the same thing, of a sight sense of moral superiority:
"He was himself. That is what their father had always said, and by it he had meant that Jack was jostled along in the stream of their vigour and purpose and their good intentions, their habits and certitudes, and was never really a part of any of it. He had eaten their food and slept beneath their roof, wearing their clothes and speaking the dialect of their slightly self-enamoured and distinctly clerical family and, for all they knew, intending no parody even when he was old enough to have been capable of it, and to have been suspected of it. (p.259)
Jack alienates himself completely when he has a child with a local girl, who he then abandons. What I found alienated me from the Boughtons was that their attempts to help the girl and her baby were not inspired by anything genuine but by a sense of moral duty and being seen to be 'doing the right thing', of trying to make amends, and their attempts were duly rejected by the girl and her family as patronising and morally judgemental. Jack's return is sparked partly by a need for forgiveness and redemption, but that is just never going to happen. Part of his nature rejects his family and community and their values, but part is still desperate to be accepted and acknowledged, so he feels he is a bad person and then has lived his life according to their expectations. He rejects them but can't help but define himself in their terms. It is all very twisted in my opinion.
And then there is sad little Glory, another one living out her life for other people, dreaming, but trying not to, of what her life might have been. Her own definition of what home is:
"She had dreamed of a real home for herself and the babies, and the fiancé, a home very different from this good and blessed and fustian and oppressive tabernacle of Boughton probity and good intent. She knew, she had known for years, that she would never open a door on that home, never cross the threshold, never scoop up a pretty child and set it on her hip and feel it lean into her breast and eye the world from her arms with the complacency of utter trust. Ah well." (p.107)
Just reading that bit - "fustian and oppressive tabernacle of Boughton probity"- I like to think tells you what she really thinks. She is the good dutiful daughter, still getting down on her knees to pray, but deep down is desperate to escape everything that her upbringing was, but resigned to her fate of living in the house that her father announces he is leaving to her, and maintaining it as 'Home', as an unchanging symbol for her siblings to come back to, of their upbringing and where they really belong.
I liked the book because of it's conflating to the two notions of home; on the one hand that it is a place that you belong, can always come back to for sanctuary, but on the other it can be a malign influence, creating something that dominates how you view your future life and how you are supposed to live it. When the book started I thought it was going to be the first idea, with the group of siblings coming together, to appreciate and celebrate their shared childhood, but it turned out to be the other, with Jack still on the outside and Glory trapped in Gilead hell. It is one of those want-what-you-haven't-got moments for me. My family moved house a lot when I was a child. My parents live now in a house that was never my home. I always wished that we had a family home that was 'where I grew up', a place to go back to. I have wished I could have created just that for my own children. Instead I have lived my entire adult life in private rentals and will never own my own home. Mostly I have come to feel that it is not so much the place that matters but the people you are with. So spending time with my family feels like home and I hope it is the same for them. So, a subtle clever book, much thought provoking, if you don't mind the claustrophobia and can let the characters do their thing without getting too frustrated.