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A Prodigal Comes 'Home' — As Does The Author

Sequels and prequels abound in literature, but Home, Marilynne Robinson's third novel in nearly 30 years, brings us a rarer animal: the novel that returns to the characters, time and place of a past work, but from a different character's point of view.

Robinson's Gilead, winner of the 2005 Pulitzer Prize, brought us the figure of John Ames, a preacher in 1960s-era Kansas who examined the dark complications of faith and free will in a long letter to Robby, the nearly 7-year-old son of his late marriage. Home, in turn, centers on Ames' best friend, Boughton, and two of his children: ne'er-do-well Jack and his younger sister, Glory.

After a crime- and crisis-filled childhood — in which Glory was often left to pick up the pieces — Jack returns home to take care of his aging father. The return of the prodigal alarms Ames, who fears Jack's influence on young Robby and on Ames' new wife, Lily. But nothing is as it seems, and Jack's journey is less about willful destruction than it is about truth seeking and shaking off rootlessness.

In Gilead, Robinson's slow, meditative prose suited the elderly Ames' voice and ruminations, which seemed to push into the past as if through dark water. Home is a faster and choppier read, with short bursts of darkly ironic dialogue that suit its younger protagonists. After a grilling by Glory about his history of chasing women only to manipulate them, Jack responds that he'd collapse without Glory's love and support. "Well, Jack," she replies, thinking of her own runaway fiance, "I don't think I need to tell you where I've heard that before."

If Gilead was about tests of faith, Home is about where, and what happens when, one searches for redemption. Readers who enjoyed the stately, philosophical pace of Gilead may be surprised to find themselves in a house with two squabbling siblings, their fears and angers as raw as if they were still teenagers.

Readers may also be surprised, after Gilead's timeless quality, to find themselves in a novel very much of its time, filled with conversations about the Civil Rights movement instead of deep thoughts about, for example, the atheist philosopher Feuerbach.

But what remains is Gilead's sense of how character, however unkindly, determines one's fate, which in Home arrives silently but powerfully, like a glacier leaving a raw gash in the landscape. Robinson's output may also be glacial, but the force her words leave in her wake is unmistakable.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Lizzie Skurnick's reviews and essays have appeared in The New York Times Book Review, The Chicago Tribune, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, and "many other appallingly underpaying publications," she says. Her books blog, Old Hag, is a Forbes Best of the Web pick and has been anthologized in Vintage's Ultimate Blogs: Masterworks from the Wild Web. She writes a column on vintage young-adult fiction for Jezebel.com, a job she has been preparing for her entire life. She is on the board of the National Book Critics Circle.