Thursday, 2 July 2009

More Marilynne Robinson

I've been engrossed in Marilynne Robinson's books for the last couple of weeks. In an earlier post I talked about Gilead; after finishing it I tried her The Death of Adam: Essays on Modern Thought (2005); although not fiction and despite being a little more uneven, it had some real high points, especially those chapters which dealt with Calvin and Calvinism. Calvin is receiving a lot of attention in the press at the minute, given the 500th anniversary of his birth, even featuring on the BBC website today (, replete, of course, with the usual banal stereotypes about Calvin, Geneva and predestination! This is where Robinson on Calvin is so good; she's read lots of the most recent scholarship, and gives a more balanced nuanced account of Calvin and Calvinism, including the Puritans also. On the whole issue of the repressiveness of sixteenth-century Genevan society under Clavin she writes:
'Cauvin . . . did attempt to have all Genevans sign a statement of belief, with the proclaimed but unenforced penalty of banishment from the city for those who refused. On the other hand, when the people of Geneva decided this demand was unacceptable . . . they could and did banish Cauvin and his friends from the city. Severity so liable to correction hardly deserves the name (The Death of Adam, pp. 198-9).
Much more of this nature can be found in the pages of The Death of Adam. Ideal reading for the weekend of the anniversary of Calvin's birth!
That led me on to read Robinson's latest novel, Home (2008). In some ways a companion volume to Gilead, although you don't necessarily need to have read Gilead to appreciate it, the central characters of Home are Jack Boughton and his sister, Glory, two of the children of Rev Boughton, the patriarchal Presbyterian minister, who was a more peripheral figure in Gilead. Jack is the black sheep of the family, having become an alcoholic and left his black wife and child behind, but is still very much his father's favourite. Glory also has her own demons and the book is the story of their return home to look after their dying father, as they struggle with his faith and his expections of them. Like Gilead its written with subtilty and beauty, and Robinson writes about the tensions between Jack, Glory and their father with compelling insight. Its an unbelievably sad and poignant book, but far from depressing! I can't recommend Home highly enough; without doubt one of the must read books of this year - easily available now in every bookshop in the land following its scooping the recent Orange Prize for fiction!!

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