Saturday, 29 September 2012

"Gilead" and "Home" two powerful novels by Marilynne Robinson

“Gilead” (published 2004), and “Home” (published 2008) are parallel novels by the splendid writer Marilynne Robinson.

Both are set in the fictional town of Gilead in Iowa in the 1950’s.  They speak of the lives of The Revd. John Ames, a Congregationalist Minister, and his friend and colleague the Revd. Robert Boughton (a Presbyterian Minister).


Ames (the story teller in “Gilead") is in his late sixties and is moving towards death.  His first wife and child had died many years before. In later life he married a quiet but perspicacious woman, Lila. Together they had a son Robert (Robby) named for the Presbyterian minister.

Robby is now aged seven.  Ames tells his story in the form of a journal which he hopes his son will read long after his (John Ames’s) death.


“Home” is told from the point of view of Glory, one of Robert Boughton’s eight children.  Glory has never married and she has returned home to take care of her Dad, her mother having passed.

Both books tell the same essential story, but with very different styles and themes.

Central to “Gilead” and “Home” is the return home of John “Jack” Boughton, (named John for his father’s friend John Ames).

Jack had left town in disgrace after fathering and abandoning a child. He had been a petty thief, a drunk, and a jail bird. He’d also had a common law wife Della. They too had a son. Jack had been forced to leave Della by her strict parents (because of his reputation), and because Jack and Della could never hope to have a married life in the segregated south with its laws against miscegenation.


They are, as I said, parallel stories, told by different voices.

Marilynne Robinson is such a brilliant user of these disparate voices that each book could stand alone.

At the same time each book illuminates the other.

Her writing is so profoundly true to human experience.

None of the central characters (John Ames, Robert Boughton, Lila Ames, and brother and sister Jack and Gloria Boughton) are never one dimensional.

“Gilead” and “Home” deal with the central themes of human existence.
What is faith?

Why is it impossible for some folk to believe?

What is home?

What are the prides, follies and wisdoms of the preachers?

Above all else Robinson wrestles with the whole matter of human forgiveness, and of “what is home?”.

The Revd. John Ames despises Jack and cannot bring himself to believe that Jack should be forgiven.

The Revd. Robert Boughton loves his errant son with a deep passion, yet he cannot forgive.

Jack himself believes that he cannot be forgiven, and that he, like Cain has been forced to “wander the earth” – because for him there is no home  -  there never was one, even when he grew up in a house with a loving family.

Theologians talk about forgiveness in obtuse, abstract, and arcane ways.

Preachers (such as your blogger) often speak about forgiveness with an all too glib certainty.

Marilynne Robinson tells stories.  And in doing so she speaks more effectively and powerful than any theologian or preacher.

I could hardly put these books down, and I will return to read them again in a year or so. They are more splendid than any sermon or theological treatise.


Here are two reviews.  First from the evangelical monthly “Christianity Today”

Second, from the well known (secular) monthly “The New Yorker”.

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