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Home Sweet Home

Home, by Marilynne Robinson
Published by Virago. Paperback edition $30. Reviewed by JANE BLAIKIE

Home is the hugely successful third novel by US Midwest writer Marilynne Robinson – its unlikely subject, the exploration of tensions in the family of a dying protestant minister.

Like its predecessors, Home has drawn numerous accolades and a prestigious prize – the 2009 Orange Prize. Robinson’s 2004 Gilead won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, and the 1980 Housekeeping won a PEN/Hemingway Award for best first novel – and appeared on lists by Time and the Guardian of their 100 best novels.

The books seem such unlikely winners because how can minute examinations of the inner lives of flawed and ordinary people, set in small towns in the Midwest in the 1950s, hold the interest of someone reading today?
Partly, they do because of the writing – meditative, superbly graceful and a balm to fractured sensibilities. Which begs the question, does anyone have sensibilities these days? – and it seems they do.

The books’ spiritual and moral explorations might seem like a barrier, but the credence the books give to introspection and natural beauty and harmony is salve in a brutal world, if you see it that way.

This may well be a New Zealand interpretation, and reading the book in the US – where something like 70 percent of people believe in a Christian God – would doubtless give a different context.

Home centres on a wayward adult son, Jack, who cannot ‘fit’ the family creed, though the story is told from the point of view of Glory, the youngest sibling, whose life has also failed in a conventional sense, but who retains her faith. They care for their dying father in a cluttered childhood home.

Jack first appeared in Gilead, as a foil to that book’s central figure – Jack’s father’s best friend, John Ames, also a minister.

Home is significantly different from Gilead (it’s longer, moments of rational explanation incur, the theological debates run on) – and its publication has led to a debate among converted Robinson readers as to whether or not Home is a travesty of the near perfect Gilead.

Kim Hill in a recent on-air interview with Nick Hornby came out strongly for Home, while Nick Hornby said he was refusing to read it because close friends who had read it were disappointed.
Definitely Gilead is a marvel – if you haven’t read Robinson, start there.

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Jane Blaikie is a Wellington writer and reviewer.