Short-listed this week for the Orange Prize for fiction, Home is from the small, but distinguished stable of writing by Marilynne Robinson. Her first novel Housekeeping (1980) was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize; her second, Gilead, published 23 years later in 2004, won the same award.
Set in a small town in Iowa in the 1950s, Home forms a companion piece to Gilead, echoing the same events but now told from a different perspective. While Gilead took the form of a farewell letter from John Ames, a 76-year old preacher, to his seven-year old son, Home focuses on the household of Robert Boughton, Ames's childhood friend and fellow cleric.
Central to the drama is Robert's misfit son, Jack – a boy who disappeared in his early twenties, casting a pall of sadness over his father's life.
His prodigal return, two decades on, coincides with the arrival of Glory, his 38-year old sister, who is on the run from a failed love affair. Both siblings see their return home as an embarassing admission of defeat.
Robinson's plangent and sombre narrative circles the uneasy threesome – brother and sister and dying father – as they go about their domestic chores, fixing broken fences, baking pies. Confidences and comfort are onlyfitfully exchanged . As Boughton senior points out over grace: "There is so much to be grateful for, words are poor things." Robinson – a novelist who once compared writing to praying - magisterially marries the language of evangelical revelation to the homespun quietism of the mid-West. Her novels may attract a near-reverential following, but don't let that put you off this very earth-bound account of ordinary pain.