He Tasks Me
‘Home,’ Mary suggests in Robert Frost’s 1914 poem ‘The Death of the Hired Man’, ‘is the place where, when you have to go there,/They have to take you in.’ To which her husband, Warren, replies: ‘I should have called it/Something you somehow haven’t to deserve.’ Home is Marilynne Robinson’s third novel; published four years after Gilead and 27 years after her astonishing debut, Housekeeping, it explores with unsparing precision and the most delicate subtlety the implications of Frost’s rival definitions of the idea of home.
The home in question is that of the Boughton family. The Reverend Robert Boughton, readers of Gilead will remember, was the best friend of the Reverend John Ames, the narrator of that novel, which is written in the form of a memoir addressed to Ames’s seven-year-old son, Robert, a name given to him by his father in honour of his friend. Both Ames and Boughton are in their late seventies; Ames is the still active Congregationalist minister of the small town of Gilead in Iowa, and Boughton is the town’s now retired Presbyterian minister. Boughton, too, named a son after his friend, but John Ames Boughton, or Jack as he early on insists he be called, turns out almost from birth to be a wilful and serial miscreant who disappoints every pious expectation his parents, his seven siblings and his godfather Ames have of him.
Gilead and Home form a neatly dovetailed diptych. They narrate the same events in the same place over the same time span, but from different points of view. It is 1956 and Jack, after two decades of avoiding all communication with his family, refusing even to attend his mother’s funeral, has at last returned home, acutely conscious he has done nothing to deserve the love his father is still painfully eager to bestow on him. For throughout his absence, Jack has offered a silent but unignorable counter-argument to his father’s, and godfather’s, optimistic vision of the world as beneficently ruled by a caring God. Jack’s obstinate refusal to conform, his ingrained ‘meanness’, to use a phrase of Ames’s from Gilead, presents both reverends with a complex challenge to their theological beliefs. If only Jack could be ‘set right’, as Boughton puts it, there would be little to trouble the balm of Gilead, or the serenity of the two ministers’ slide towards death.
Jack is not, however, the only Boughton returnee. The youngest of the clan, Glory, is a shadowy figure in Gilead, much esteemed by Ames for her patient devotion to her rapidly failing father. In the opening pages of Home we learn her back story: she is 38 (five years younger than Jack), and for 13 years she taught English at a high school in Des Moines. For many of those years she thought she was engaged to a man who, it turns out, never had the slightest intention of marrying her, and it is her discovery of his turpitude that drives her to return to Gilead. ‘Home to stay, Glory! Yes!’ her father says, as the novel opens, ‘and her heart sank.’ During her faux-engagement she occasionally allowed herself to imagine a home and family of her own: ‘A modest sunlit house, everything in it spare and functional, airy. Nothing imposing about it at all. In front a picture window looking out on a garden, a patio in back. The kitchen would be spacious and sunlit, with a white painted table, no, a breakfast nook, where morning light would fall on it.’ Children would play quietly on the patio so as not to disturb Papa, and wear flannel pyjamas on cool nights. The home to which she returns ‘to stay’, ‘the place where, when you have to go there,/They have to take you in’, and which she will one day inherit, is tall, awkward, gloomy, cluttered with memories, and stuffed with heavy Victorian furniture. The only children occasionally to be found playing there are Ames’s son Robert and his friend Tobias.
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