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[304] Gilead – Marilynne Robinson

” I can’t believe we will forget our sorrows altogether. That would mean forgetting that we had lived, humanly speaking. Sorrow seems to me to be a great part of the substance of human life. ” [104]

Gilead does not assume any form of a linear plot although it embraces the themes of forgiveness, jealousy, love, grace, faith, fear, and resentment through reflections of Reverend John Ames, who mesmerizes with account of his life, and that of his father and grandfather. At age 76, with a failing heart, Ames is afraid he won’t see his 6-year-old son from his second marriage grow up. “The fact is, I don’t want to be old. And I certainly don’t want to be dead. I don’t want to be the tremulous coot you barely remember.” [141] In the diary meant for his son to read, he records all his thoughts and reflections, meditating on creation and existence. Terrains of his memories span almost a century, dating back to Civil War, when Ames’ grandfather had preached his people into the war, and thus begrudging his son (Ames’ father), who was a keen believer in pacifism.

I was thinking about the things that had happened here just in my lifetime—the droughts and the influenza and the Depression and three terrible wars. It seems to me now we never looked up from the trouble we had just getting by to put the obvious question, that is, to ask what it was the Lord was trying to make us understand. [233]

It was when his namesake and godson, John Ames Boughton (Jack), returns from St. Louis after a twenty-year absence that John Ames has to confront his long-simmering crises of personal resentment. Jack’s story is fully developed in Home. The revered is always predisposed to believe that Jack—the profigal son, the lost sheep—has done something terrible. His return to Gilead, Iowa has seemed to be a disruption of the peace that reigns the town, although his appearance does alleviate the grief rooted in his father’s loneliness for him.

Jack Boughton is home, to the delight of his father, my dear friend. For all I knew, he has done no harm, and for all I know, he intends no harm. And yet the mere fact of him troubles me. [186]

Most of the novel concerns with prosaic Christianity, as the reverend reads through boxes of his sermon notes and writes down his thoughts. Although the quiet prose can be trying my patience at times, the religious rambling, with frequent flourishing of beautifully contemplative sentences, provides the context of the confrontations that take place in the last third of the book. I’m glad to have read Home first because I might not have the motivation to peruse Home after finishing Gilead. Homes achieves a better balance between beautiful, lyrical writing and a sustainable plot.

247 pp. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]

[297] Home – Marilynne Robinson

” Glory was aware suddenly that the weariness of the night and day had overwhelmed her, and her hope of comforting had not had anything to do with the way things really happen in the world. Her father was crouched in his chair, with his chin almost in his plate, drowsing and speaking from what she could only hope was a dream, and her brother was withdrawing into utter resignation, as if the old incandescence had consumed him before it flickered out. ” [281]

Home is set in 1960s Iowa, in the town of Gilead, against the political backdrop of civil right movement. Glory Boughton, age 38, has returned to Gilead to care for her dying father, Reverend Robert Boughton. Soon her brother Jack, the prodigal son, gone for twenty years, exposing the old man to the possibility of inexpressible disappointment, comes home with an unspoken agenda. Despite her feeling a special attachment to her brother at youth, his absence of two decades makes him a stranger, whose brusqueness of manner, wry elusiveness, and secretiveness make her all the more curious at his motive for his visit.

She had sometimes crossed streets to look into strangers’ faces for the satisfactions of resemblance, and met a cool stare or a guarded glance, not so unlike him, . . . She always knew how many years it was since she had last seen him, and she corrected against her memory of him because he was so young then. It was as if she had spent the years preparing herself to know him when she saw him, and here he was, tense and wary… [38]

Jack’s arrival provokes the reverend’s disquiet, who always feels responsible for his son’s loneliness and misery—didn’t do right by Jack. Much of the book revolves around this visit. What drives the novel forward, although Home is not plot-driven, is an affecting choreography of emotional terrains between brother and sister. There is no place here for the possessive clutch, the clinging arm, the heavy hand; only the barest touch in passing. Through their interactions, as they warm to one another, bits of their past and secrets are revealed. Perpetually in defiance with his surroundings, Jack, once an alcoholic and thief, comes home to make peace with a past that provokes discomfort in his family and that of his godfather, Ames. Also coming to terms with her grief is Glory, whose long engagement to a married man has left her jaded and hurt.

As a matter of courtesy they treated one another’s deceptions like truth, which was a different thing from deceiving or being deceived. In fact, it was a great part of the fabric of mutual understanding that made their family close. [232]

Home is a deeply affecting novel about family, family secrets, love, and forgiveness. In forging an intense bond with his sister, Jack Boughton has reconciled with his family and most importantly, brings his soul to a resting place, the ultimate home, after a lifetime more or less given over to dishonesty. Home is where he is embraced, the wrong forgiven and forgotten. Even if the wrong cannot be undone, he can at least show the greatest kindness and remorse by accepting the good intended for him.

325 pp. 1st Ed. hardback. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]