A prodigal son returns in brilliant 'Gilead' sequel
Summary and compression cannot come close to capturing the moment-by-moment beauty of Marilynne Robinson's third novel, Home. It is a novel that unfolds slowly in hushed, carefully observed scenes whose disquieting emotional import vaults off the page. Its power is as much spiritual as literary. And its cumulative impact has as much to do with the pain of misunderstanding that exists among its three main characters as the love that seeks to bridge those misunderstandings.
Home is a companion to Robinson's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Gilead. Set in fictional Gilead, Iowa, in 1956, Gilead was told as a discursive letter written by a 76-year-old Congregational minister named John Ames to the seven-year-old son he has fathered late in life. Late in that novel, Ames is visited by the prodigal son of his lifelong best friend, a Presbyterian minister named Robert Boughton, now on his deathbed. The son, Jack, named after Ames, seeks spiritual counsel, and Ames, a good man, tries to provide it. But ultimately Ames cannot completely understand or forgive Jack for what Ames perceives as his cruelty to his father.
Home offers a deeper, richer, more compassionate view of the sometimes charming and frequently discomfiting Jack Boughton. The new novel is told from the perspective of Glory Boughton, the youngest Boughton child, who at 38 years old returns to Gilead to care for her dying father after her own wounding failures in life and love. When her older brother Jack shows up after a 20-year absence, the two struggle to make peace with their pasts, with each other and with their father. Jack, one of the most unsettling characters in recent fiction, is haunted by a kind of spiritual emptiness. At one point he sadly observes, "I create a kind of displacement around myself when I pass through the world, which can fairly be called trouble." In fact, the trouble this prodigal son creates is palpable, but in Robinson's inspired telling, it also moves us to empathy. This makes Home a more excruciating but no less beautiful or rewarding read than its predecessor.
Alden Mudge writes from California.