A Life Less Ordinary

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This Orange Prize winner lays bare the fissures in seemingly perfect relationships.
Home | Marilynne Robinson | Virago | 339 pages | Rs 395

Home is where the heart hurts. For Jack Boughton, the black sheep of his family, the return to his father’s house after 20 years is a complicated journey. Jack’s arrival at sleepy small town Gilead stirs old memories in his father, Reverend Robert Boughton, a Presbyterian minister. Since his youth, Jack’s transgressions have been the virtuous Boughton family’s cross. The prodigal has seven siblings and the youngest, 38-year-old Glory, lives at the family home and takes care of their ageing father. Home, which won this year’s Orange Prize, is narrated from Glory’s third person point of view. The story is set in the 50s, as was Robinson’s Pulitzer-winning novel, Gilead.

Home is populated with the same cast of characters as Gilead. There is the Boughton brood and Reverend John Ames, Robert Boughton’s closest friend. The two novels share the same setting—Gilead, a small town in the American Midwest. Change is a four-letter word here, though modernity is making slow, inevitable encroaches. Television is a curiosity. Hymns at the piano and family dinners are the most popular entertainment.

Thematic threads also bind both novels. Home, like Gilead, is preoccupied with sin and suffering, redemption and grace, family, home, the ties that bind and break. But Home is more of a companion piece to Gilead than a sequel. It is a nuanced retelling of the events of Gilead from a fresh perspective. You can enjoy one without having read the other.

Robinson paints a poignant picture of everyday life in Home. Nothing spectacular happens at the Boughton home or outside of it. Jack walks back into the same old, overdecorated dining room, ploughs through Glory’s cooking and stilted conversations. The gentle Robert Boughton reaches out to his son as he always has, and is rebuffed, as he always will be. Glory watches her brother with a mix of wonder and resentment. Glory is squeaky clean, a child who grew up to be the kind of person her parents wanted her to be. Jack is the wild one, a creature of secrets and vices, a man of constant sorrows. Glory’s feelings towards him are part missionary zeal, part impossible affection. She loves him. And she resents him for neglecting her, for his ‘strategies of evasion’ and his lack of devotion to the ‘skills of ordinary, dutiful choring that made up most of every life’.

Robinson sprinkles her novel with Biblical imagery. Words like piety, forgiveness, courtesy and reverence are used liberally. But parables and theological arguments are weaved seamlessy into the narrative. They tread softly on the reader’s sensibility. Robinson’s style is disarmingly simple, just like the narrative. It lays bare the undercurrents lurking behind mundane moments. It exposes the fissures in relationships that are seemingly perfect, attacks the facades before the faces of the blameless. Whether you believe in a benevolent God or not, Home is recommended reading. Like all great literature, it has the power to inspire introspection, no matter whether you are sinner or saved.