This is my review of Home by Marilynne Robinson.
"Home" is a subtle and moving exploration of relationships between parents and siblings, and the deeply embedded nostalgic memories of one's childhood which return in adult life, perhaps particularly for those who are "less successful", with too much time on their hands. It is written from the viewpoint of Glory, the oversensitive and unworldly youngest daughter of the retired Reverend Boughton, for whom she has returned to care in his old age after the collapse of her long, clearly doomed engagement. Unexpectedly, after an absence of twenty years, her brother Jack also returns home, an outsider, an alcoholic drifter from his youth, yet still retaining the power to attract people with his charm and flashes of perceptiveness. The human flaws and contradictions in the main characters held my interest – not least the pious yet manipulative old father, who in some distorted way loved his most wayward son the most, because he provided a "real cross to bear". There was also the inference that Jack's questioning agnostic spirit had somehow been crushed by the stifling religion of his upbringing. I enjoyed the implication that Jack, concerned about the race riots in the south, was less prejudiced than his godly father who had not thought to question the bigotry in which he had been raised.
Although this book could have been unbearably sad, this was countered by the wry humour of Glory's private thoughts, and by some drily witty dialogue.
I sympathise with some of the reservations of other readers. Having made its point, the book did "go on a bit" although you could argue that it reflected the slow rhythm of life in rural Iowa. In the same vein, the focus on the minute details of living – cooking, cleaning and maintaining clothes when one is very poor, gave the book realism. I also liked the way in which some key facts are touched upon so delicately that you could miss them if you tried to read too fast, or did not trouble to "tune in" to the wording, which is quite convoluted at times, almost "nineteenth century" in style yet very lucid at other points.
It is true that the self-absorption of the three main characters was wearing at times. There were a few practical queries. Wouldn't Jack's sudden appearance after twenty years have created more of an impact? Surely the siblings would have come flooding back to see him? If their respected old father was fading into senility wouldn't that have brought them back as well?
The book dragged somewhat in the middle for me. As relations between Glory and Jack improved I feared I was reading a kind of Polyanna-cum-Little Women for adults. Jack's reputation for being an alcoholic and a thief seemed a little exaggerated. But the tension from Glory's ongoing dread over her brother's imminent downfall was proved justified. The pace improved towards the end with an effective final twist, although I felt that Glory's final observations were a little schmalzy.
This is a well-written and thought-provoking book which encourages me to read "Gilead" although on a superficial view the latter appeals to me less. Although "Home" can be enjoyed by an agnostic/atheist I am not sure the same can be said for Gilead…..