Home by Marilynne Robinson
Home appears at first to be a retelling of the Biblical story of the prodigal son. Jack Boughton, black sheep of his staunchly presbyterian family, returns home after an absence of twenty years and although his character has parallels with the Biblical prodigal (he returns home in humility, not expecting anything, let alone to be treated as family), the father, despite having been pastor of a church for years, presents the very antithesis of the Biblical response.
He loves his son and has always wanted Jack to feel like part of the family, as loved and accepted as any of his seven siblings, but the ‘forgiveness’ he offers is one which keeps a careful record of all the wrongs. Jack feels nervous every time he enters the elderly man’s presence and we can understand why. We never know whether he – or any other character in the story – will be met with geniality or crotchety ill-humour. Boughton Snr is filled with distrust, and that radiates through the pages and reflects back onto him.
Home is a companion-piece to Robinson’s earlier novel Gilead, which tells some elements of the story from the perspective of Boughton’s equally elderly friend and neighbour, Revd Ames. I read that first, and was left with a sense of hopelessness for Jack – in that novel he speaks with Revd Ames about predestination, the (none-too-subtle) subtext being his desire to know ‘Is there hope for me? Can I receive God’s salvation?’ The answer given is: ‘We don’t really know’; the message communicated: ‘Probably not.’
I hoped, in Home, to get the rest of the story, to hear someone remind him of God’s promises that those who seek Him will find Him, and that He is longing to run to greet His ‘once dead, but now alive’ sons, but no such hope is given.
My heart broke for the child who hesitantly approached the Lord, only to be turned away by His over-zealous disciples, who thought they, not Christ, were best placed to judge who was worthy of the Saviour’s love.
Contrast that with the true story I heard on Sunday of a severely abused Romanian orphan, adopted 20 years ago by a loving, Christian family in the USA. Daniel was diagnosed with Advanced Attachment Disorder which meant, in the words of Andy Tilsley, who shared this story in his sermon, that “even as a child he lived in his identity of feeling worthless and evil and bad and unloveable”. (Jack, in Home, is not so severely damaged, but has spent his life feeling like an outsider, as if he never really deserved to be treated as part of the family.)
Daniel’s mother, despite his abusive, violent, hateful treatment of her, refused to give up on him. Over and over and over again she would respond to his appalling behaviour by looking him in the eye and repeating ‘I love you, I love you, I love you’.
It took years to replace the negative messages embedded in Daniel’s psyche with the message that he was loved, secure, safe and valued, but her Godly persistence achieved it, and when he was 18 he was finally able to speak words of love back to her, and to live lovingly towards her, his brother and others.
Many may see Home as being more realistic or true-to-life than the parable of the prodigal son, but Daniel’s story shows it doesn’t have to be that way. Love is stronger than fear or rejection or failure. It breaks my heart that this book (which I think won the Orange prize for fiction) had such a great opportunity to declare God’s unfailing, radical, exciting, amazing love to the secular market left such a gaping, yawning sadness and despair. Yes, it’s a masterful display of the writer’s art, but if writing is about representing truth in a fresh way, this book falls far short of good writing.