Home – Marilynne Robinson

Book # 7b

Reviewer: Tall, Short, Tiny & a Pickle

HomeThe 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.


Fugitive Pieces – Anne Michaels

Review #104

Reviewer: Beth, of Beth’s List Love (first published June 2012)

I have read a lot of Holocaust books in the course of my journey through the 1001 Books list. Each book has moved me, has added to my understanding of the time and place, of the experience of those whose lives were torn asunder by the large and small horrors. This book may be the best, though it comes at the subject more obliquely than many. The language, the psychological depth, the complexity together left me breathless. Below you will find my Goodreads review of Fugitive Pieces which begins with the book’s opening passage.

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

“Time is a blind guide.
Bog boy, I surfaced into the miry streets of the drowned city. For over a thousand years, only fish wandered Biskupin’s wooden sidewalks. Houses, built to face the sun, were flooded by the silty gloom of the Gasawka River. Gardens grew luxurious in subaqueous silence; lilies, rushes, stinkweed.
No one is born just once. If you’re lucky, you’ll emerge again in someone’s arms; or unlucky, wake when the long tail of terror brushes the inside of your skull.”

Let me begin by saying that whatever I type here, I will not do this book justice. You should read this book. I do not give 5 stars lightly, and this volume, which won the Orange Prize in 1997, had earned 5 stars in my mind by just a chapter or two in. In reading farther, I never felt the urge to revise my assessment. This book eases into your soul and takes up residence.

Let me start simply with what it is about. The book captures the experiences primarily of two men. The first, Jakob Beer, is found as a child hiding buried in mud at an archaeological site after fleeing the Nazis who have killed his parents. Only after he escapes does he realize that he does not know what became of his older sister. The Greek archaeologist who finds him takes him back to Greece, hides him, and then builds a new life with him as his godfather. The second man, Ben, takes up the story at the point of Jakob’s death. He is a scholar inspired by Beer’s work, and the Canadian child of two concentration camp survivors.

The book powerfully chronicles the physical and psychological impact that the Nazis had on individuals and on the territories they occupied, but it does so in gemlike fragments–images, moments, dreams, the reflexive responses of individuals wounded in devastating ways by the horrors inflicted by men on their fellow creatures. Beer is a poet; one gift that the archaeologist gives him is the tradition of using of using language to meet the deepest human experience. As he hides in the house on a Greek hillside, he reads and absorbs the literary traditions of Europe’s great ancient cultures. But he is given more. The archaeologist loves him deeply, teaches him to trust and to connect with people, and shares his own love of the earth and its records of truth.

Geology is present throughout the book, and in the later sections meteorology is, as well, since Ben’s scholarship looks at the impact of meteorology on historic events. And finally, romantic love and both its capacity and failure to transform and transcend the wounds of past experience is gorgeously explored in the lives of both men.

The language of this book is remarkable, the themes complex and expertly wrought. There are times it is hard to breathe while reading it. This book deserves to be read and reread, as were many volumes on the shelves of Beer’s home in Greece which Ben searches through after Jakob’s death, seeking journals to take back to Canada to a mutual friend. It is too beautiful and too powerful to leave behind after a single reading.