Wednesday, January 12, 2011

home, let me go home

Sam's companion review of Gilead  is here

Coming to Home straight after reading Housekeeping I was struck by the differences. Home feels earthier, more dialogue, less light and water, less dreamy. But then the similarities- the interest in family, the presence of loneliness as a force that seems intrinsic to some people. The outsider, the drifter, and home. As you might expect, home is a major theme in this novel.

Home begins with Glory, the youngest of eight children, returning home to the Iowa town of Gilead to look after her aging father, the Rev. Robert Boughton, after her own dreams have been shattered. Shortly after her return her brother, Jack, comes home too. Unlike Glory, he hasn't been home for 20 years, and his return fills the house with a mixture of anger, joy, love and anxiety. Home in this book is a place of happy childhood memories, but also painful ones. It provides sanctuary but also a sense of failure. Both children have returned less than voluntarily, and the fact of being home provides a contrast to what they could have hoped for from their lives.

Glory and her father are both happy to see Jack, they love him and want him to come home and stop wandering. Since he was a boy he has always been a sort of outsider in the family, a constant source of worry and misbehaviour even before disappearing for 20 years. While away it is clear that his life has been hard and fairly solitary, and when he comes home he brings with him the habits of solitude and secrecy that he has always had. The relationship between father and son is difficult. Robert Boughton loves his son, regards him almost as a favourite, is overjoyed to have him home, but still cannot trust him or entirely approve of him. The three try to live together in one house, with father and daughter always wary of saying or doing anything that will scare Jack away again. Jack, for his part, seems to love them too, but can't work out how to be a part of the family and can't get rid of his own sense of guilt. What a hard book to sum up! How to summarize these complex family relationships? 

Jack seems to have a sense of 'outsider-ness' from birth: 
Jack said quietly, "I don't want you to give a damn about me. Any of you. I never did." He looked at Glory as if he might apologize, then there was a silence
But the rest of the family can't help caring about him. They love him and they want him to think well of them. Glory still looks up to him as an older brother, like when she was a child. His father tries to work for the best for his family, but things don't work out as he hopes and his efforts often seem futile or counter-productive:
"If it were only a little easier to know what they are. The needs of others. A good deal more is required than just being mindful. That has certainly been my experience."

Probably the best way to summarize the relationships is to compare them to the story of the prodigal son, which Robinson is drawing on here. Religion is a big part of the family life of the Boughtons (they are a Presbyterian minister's family after all), and their religious beliefs are very much a part of how they relate to each other and see themselves. 'Home' in this context has also a resonance with the idea of a heavenly home (though I don't think this is really drawn out in the novel). Guilt and forgiveness are big themes too, they are warring forces particularly in Robert Boughton. There are no easy answers here though, forgiveness is not always easy, and guilt is insidious. The problem of not knowing the right thing to do comes up often, particularly as the family is not quite sure how to relate to Jack.

In the end it is a bittersweet book about family and love and how hard it can be to translate love to another person. How home can be valued by people in different ways. It is sad but I wouldn't describe it as sentimental. When they were looking forward to Jack coming home in the beginning, I was teary. At the end I flat-out cried. It seems so real somehow, all these people so flawed but trying so hard to make things better.  I can't do it justice, except to tell you to read it yourself. And I am definitely looking forward to Gilead!

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