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July 18, 2008

Home by Marilynne Robinson

It seems strange now, having just quoted Marilynne Robinson on “show, don’t tell,” and then going on to read her new novel Home (out in September), which doesn’t contain a single bit of “tell” as I understand it, and perhaps contains lack of telling as its very essence. This makes more sense, however, upon focusing on a different part of the quotation: “People are to an incredible degree constituted of what they never say, perhaps never consciously think. Behaviour is conventionalized and circumstantial. In many cases, the behaviour that in fact would express what someone thinks or feels is frustrated, cannot occur.”

Home, Robinson’s third novel, appears to function as in exercise in fiction under these constraints, in which characters are constructed by what they do not, or cannot say. Glory Boughton, thirty-eight years old and the youngest of six has returned home to her ailing father, returned after a long and failed engagement in something of disgrace. She has just settled into life with her father, a retired minister, when her brother Jack comes home also, suddenly, the prodigal son. Jack, that black sheep, the subject of a great deal of family worry and shame, has been gone for twenty years and appears no less troubled than when he left, in fact worse, having not worn his experiences altogether well.

The story of these three characters living together is a quiet one, subtle. Made doubly obscure by their strangeness to one another coupled with the intimacy of family, meaning that even more than usual goes unsaid– the circumstances of Glory’s heartache, just where her brother has been. And just as Robinson doesn’t rely on characters “showing” the answers to these questions, neither does she tell in a cheap way. As readers we don’t get much access into characters’ heads, Jack and his father not at all, and little with Glory because she can’t bring herself to think so much.

And so the story is revealed by what the characters choose to tell one another, and by their silences, and by other words underlying everything they say. Our own lack of insight providing another kind, a certain objectivity illuminating how intentions can be misread, the limits of perspective, and a realistic experience of these characters as actual people without their details written on their sleeves. Their true natures requiring not so much decoding as careful reading, almost listening. This bringing forth an engagement with the novel that renders the quietness and subtlety absolutely no such thing, magnifying every single event.

Marilynne Robinson is a majestic writer. Of all the bits I underlined, my favourite remains, “They sat on the arms of their mother’s overstuffed chair while she read to them, and they huing over the back of it, and they pinched and plucked at its plushy hide. If the nub of a feather poked through, they would pull it out and play with it, a dry little plume of down, sometimes unbroken.” Or when, after a lot of thought about dumplings good or bad, Glory concedes that perhaps the word dumplings is better than dumplings themselves.

Robinson’s new novel is a gorgeous story of homecoming, exploring the nature of home itself, our histories, and the stubborn nature of family love– the bond that just can’t help itself.

4 thoughts on “Home by Marilynne Robinson”

  1. Lenore says:

    sounds very experimental – and I love experimental.

  2. Jill says:

    Great review…I can’t wait to read this book!

  3. Kerry says:

    The book is really beautiful. I don’t think either of you will be disappointed.

  4. Roy says:

    It took twenty-five years for Robinson to follow up her first novel, Housekeeping with Gilead, so already hearing about a new novel–this time based on the same characters that populated Gilead–is so exciting.

    Housekeeping won her the Pen/Faulkner award and then she was awarded both the critics’ circle and pulitzer for Gilead. A lot is expected from Home .

    If this blog has whetted your appetite for Home and you haven’t read Gilead, in the few months until it comes out please take the time to read it. It will make your soul grow.

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