Marilynne Robinson's New Novel

Samuel Beckett couldn't have made it much sparer: three characters (father, son and daughter) who talk, talk, talk for more than 300 pages and say pretty much the same things over and over. Almost all the action is contained in the kitchen, the garden and the barn of an old house in the little fictional town of Gilead, Iowa, in the mid-'50s. Actually, "action" may be too strong a word, since the changes and plot twists that do occur are almost all confined to mental landscapes. The miracle—not such a strange word here, given this novel's consuming interest in things spiritual—is that not only do we keep reading Marilynne Robinson's "Home," but that we do so compulsively, as avidly as we might read a detective thriller.

This is Robinson's second trip to Gilead, the location of the novel for which she won a Pulitzer Prize in 2005. But this time the point of view has shifted down the road. The earlier story was told by the Rev. John Ames, an elderly minister, in the form of a letter to his 7-year-old son. "Home," slightly more omniscient, is told from the point of view of Glory Boughton, the 38-year-old daughter of the Rev. Robert Boughton, John Ames's best friend. Most of the salient details we already know from "Gilead": that Glory has come home to tend to her ailing father, that she is soon joined by her brother Jack, a troubled man, an unreliable drunk who sows discord and unease wherever he goes. Yet what a difference that shift in point of view produces. In "Gilead," it is John Ames's voice that captivates us. "Home" is more contrapuntal. We spend it listening to Glory and Jack talking while they take care of their dying father, while they work in the garden, while Jack tinkers with the old DeSoto in the garage. As they circle and recircle the same topics—the roles of parents and children, the demands of kin, why some people are outsiders in their own families—we are drawn in not because they find answers to these questions but because they so ably articulate our own confusion and misgivings.

There is almost no first-rate American fiction about what happens in a household where religion is the family business, but if you ever wondered what it's like to be a preacher's kid, you can't do better than "Home." Robinson's greatest achievement is that she manages to introduce the notions of belief and religious mystery without ever seeming vague. She never shies from uncomfortable truths. When Jack asks Glory why she hates Gilead and wants to leave, she says, "Because it reminds me of when I was happy." Fixing dinner, she "wished that it mattered more that [she and her father and brother] loved one another. Or mattered less, since guilt and disappointment seemed to batten on love. Her father and brother were both laid low by grief, as if it were a sickness, and she had nothing better to offer them than chicken and dumplings." This is a novel that builds its truth out of quotidian detail—the way Jack thumbs the felt on his hat brim, the way Glory thinks in Bible verses: watching Jack leave at the end of the book, she thinks, "A man of sorrows and acquainted with grief, and as one from whom men hide their face. Ah, Jack." This is book full of sadness, but the greatest sadness on the reader's part is that it has to end. How genuinely mysterious is that?