Witnesses to a Mystery


by Marilynne Robinson
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 325 pp., $25.00

In the opening paragraphs of Marilynne Robinson’s 2004 Pulitzer Prize–winning novel Gilead, the elderly narrator John Ames, a Congregationalist minister in the small Iowa town of Gilead, tells his young son:

I don’t know how many times people have asked me what death is like…. I used to say it was like going home. We have no home in this world, I used to say….

He goes on to explain that this was an analogy born of what he elsewhere refers to as his “dark time, as I call it, the time of my loneliness, [which] was most of my life”: “I didn’t feel very much at home in the world, that was a fact. Now I do.”

The joy in Ames’s later years—born of his union with the much younger and rather mysterious Lila, and of the birth of their son, Robby, to whom Gilead is addressed—has been, for him, transformative. But his—or his creator’s—decision to link death and home so decidedly, and so early, is telling. The opening words of Robinson’s new novel, Home, are Robert Boughton’s: he, Ames’s lifelong friend and fellow minister (Presbyterian rather than Congregationalist), is speaking to his daughter, Glory: “Home to stay, Glory! Yes!”; and Glory’s response, albeit unspoken, is “Dear God…dear God in heaven.” If death is like coming home, then, too, coming home can be like death.

Home is a companion piece to Gilead, an account of the same time (the summer of 1956), in the same place (Gilead, Iowa), with the same cast of characters as the earlier novel. Each book is strengthened and deepened by a reading of the other. It is tempting, indeed, to liken them to the gospels, dovetailing versions of the same epiphanic experiences, each with its particular revelations, omissions, and emphases; except that instead of telling the stories of Christ, Robinson’s novels tell those of the all-too-human antihero, the struggling prodigal son, Jack Boughton.

Any story, Robinson reminds us, is many stories; and, as John Ames reflects in Gilead :

In every important way we are such secrets from each other, and I do believe that there is a separate language in each of us, also a separate aesthetics and a separate jurisprudence. Every single one of us is a little civilization built on the ruins of any number of preceding civilizations, but with our own variant notions of what is beautiful and what is acceptable—which, I hasten to add, we generally do not satisfy and by which we struggle to live.

The two books, different in their form and approach as well as in the details they reveal and the stories they ultimately tell, are an enactment of Ames’s tenet, and, metonymically, an enactment of humanity’s broader dance of ever-attempted, ever-failing communication—through a glass darkly.

This is not, of itself, a novel endeavor for the novel (Edith Wharton once wrote, with typical concise wit, “I had the story, bit by bit, from various people, and, as generally happens in such…

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