INDEPENDENT            3 October 2008

Marilynne Robinson left twenty-four years between her first novel, Housekeeping, and her second, Gilead.  Now, after a mere four, she has brought out her third, Home.   No doubt Gilead’s rapturous reception has had some bearing on the comparatively short interval, but the main reason is surely that Robinson returns to the small mid-Western town that furnished her second novel with its title and features many of the same characters, events and even conversations, from a different point of view.

In Gilead, John Ames, an ageing Congregationalist minister, recorded his own and his family’s history for the sake of his young son, Robert, whose maturity he knew he would not live to see.  The story became dominated by Jack Broughton, the ne’er-do-well son of his dearest friend and fellow cleric, Robert.  Jack, named after Ames, was ‘a godson, more or less’, but his conduct, particularly in fathering a child on a poor white girl and then in living with a ‘coloured woman’ in St Louis, was the antithesis of Ames’ conservative Christianity.

In Home, Robinson develops Jack’s story, although here it is seen from the perspective of Glory, the youngest of his seven siblings and one of four sisters, the others being Faith, Hope and Grace, named after ‘theological abstractions’.  Glory, like Jack, has returned to her childhood home after the break-up of her relationship.  Although she thinks of herself as ‘pious’, she has more in common with Jack than with the rest of her god-fearing family, to whom she has pretended to be married.

Having long devoted herself to her lover’s interests, Glory now does so to her brother’s.  From the moment of his unexpected reappearance after twenty years, she puts herself at his disposal, trying to ease his burden of undisclosed sorrow while making sure that he does nothing to destroy their father’s joy at this unexpected reunion with his favourite son.  Robinson subtly insinuates that Glory’s selflessness is her tragedy, nowhere more so than when her father announces that he will leave her the family home and she promises to keep it ready for Jack, whom she knows will never again return.

Gilead is a place that lives by certain immutable attitudes and it is fitting that in both novels the period is not stated but merely hinted at by reference to politicians, domestic appliances and, particularly, an unthinking racism.  Home is comprised of small events and apotheoses.  Even its climax in which Glory discovers the identity of Jack’s wife comes as no surprise to readers of Gilead.  Yet small town lives have never felt so alive with significance.

Like its predecessor, Home is most notable for its spirituality.   Its language has a scriptural power and resonance.  Much of the imagery is biblical, especially of Jack, who is both Prodigal Son and Penitent Thief and, finally, even ‘Man of Sorrows’.  The characters engage in deeply felt theological debate and the novel is shot through with Jack’s agonising over the state of his soul.  At a time when the more blinkered aspects of American Christianity have once again hit the headlines, it is salutary to be reminded, through Glory and her father, of the positive aspects of the country’s belief.

Home, unlike Gilead, is not a masterpiece.  It lacks that novel’s urgency, economy and historical sweep.  That said, it is a luminous, profound and moving piece of writing.  There is no contemporary American novelist whose work I would rather read.