Book # 7b
The accolades for Marilynne Robinson’s Home are splashed across and inside the cover of the copy I borrowed from my local library. “One of the saddest books I have ever loved”, said one reviewer. “A powerful piece of writing”, stated another. I wasn’t skeptical, for there are good reasons why any book appears on this list, but I will admit to being hesitant to have too high an expectation, in case Home didn’t live up to the hype.
I needn’t have been so cautious; Home left me with a rather profound sense of sadness mixed with hope, and I was disappointed when I realised I’d read the last page.
Home tells the story of Glory Boughton and her older brother Jack, who both return to their family home and ailing father. Glory is an English teacher, fleeing from a failed relationship with a disappointing man; she is the youngest of the Boughton children, determined to put the past behind her and tend to her father. Jack Boughton hasn’t been in contact with his family for twenty years. As a child, he was always getting into trouble; as an adult, not much has changed. Growing up, the two siblings felt quite separate from each other, and as the story unfolds, they begin to form a relationship and offer each other the support both need.
This is a story about family, loyalty and love, strongly woven together with faith and redemption, and the uncertain desire to make peace with the past. There is a very strong sense of spirituality and belief, which is at the heart of the Boughton family; I don’t feel qualified to comment much on this aspect of the novel, but it raises some interesting points and the characters are often found in deep theological discussion. Set in the 1950s, there are also elements of politics and race, which, while barely mentioned, prove to be important in shaping Jack’s behaviour and the situation he finds himself in.
Police were pushing the black crowd back with dogs, turning fire hoses on them. Jack said, “Jesus Christ!”
His father shifted in his chair. “That kind of language has never been acceptable in this house.”
Jack said, “I –” as if he had been about to say more. But he stopped himself. “Sorry.”
“No need to be sorry, Jack. Young people want the world to change and old people want it to stay the same. And who is to judge between thee and me? We just have to forgive each other.”
Of the eight Boughton children, we meet just three throughout the novel: Glory, Jack, and Teddy. The others are all mentioned in passing, but do not feature at all; in the beginning, I wondered when we might meet them, but the story didn’t need them to feature, and nothing would have been gained by adding more to the limited cast. The sense of separation in the family is poignant (Glory keeps in touch with all of her siblings; Jack was sought for a number of years but proved elusive), and as Jack and Glory come to rely on each other, there is a sense of uncomplicated loyalty and fondness, not marred by the opinions or experiences of the others. Their relationship is quite hopeful and the trust builds as they open up to each other, but it is full of despairing moments and tears. Glory’s tears could have come across as weakness, but she is incredibly strong and perceptive, with a tenderness and kindness that Jack feels he doesn’t deserve. He has hit rock-bottom a number of times but underneath his self-loathing there is a small spark of hope and willingness to believe he can change, if only someone will give him the opportunity to prove it.
He said, “You get used to kindness. After a while you begin to count on it. You miss it when it’s gone.”
She said, “I know a little bit about that,” and he nodded, and the lilacs rustled, and the sun shone, and there was quiet between them, a calm that came with being of one mind. So she had to say, “You shouldn’t lose hope.”
He laughed. “Sometimes I really wish I could.”
She said, “I know about that, too.”
Throughout Home, there are moments of such hope and happiness that the Boughton family seems grossly normal and successful, but there are also moments of such sadness and desperation that make them seem dysfunctional and distant. Reverend Boughton is desperate for all of his children to get along, and as his health fails further, he struggles to separate the present from the past.
She stepped into the dining room and asked Jack to play, and then she went back to help her father. “‘Softly and Tenderly’,” the old man said. “A very fine song. Is that Gracie?”
“No, it’s Jack.”
The old man said, “I don’t believe Jack plays the piano. It might be Gracie.”
She brought her father down the hallway. He stopped at a little distance from the piano, released her arm, and stood looking at Jack with puzzled interest. He whispered, “The fellow plays very well. But why is he here in our house?”
Glory said, “He’s come home to see you, Papa.”
“Well, that’s very nice, I suppose. No harm in it.”
Some might say that faith is the strongest theme of this story, but I believe it is the power of love – to support, buoy, forgive and fix, but also wound, hurt, disappoint and destroy – that is the strongest theme. The ending leaves the story wide open, but it is hopeful and almost up-lifting; Home is a simply but beautifully written story that won’t bring you to tears, but will leave your heart wishing for more.