A stolen hour of reflection with Marilynne Robinson
In the waiting room of my local walk-in clinic, there's not much to read except rumpled copies of Us magazine, which devotes a great many pages (but precious few words) to paired photos of stars I've never heard of in identical outfits no one over 25 could wear. The teasing headline asks, "Who wore it best?" Answer: the celeb with the loudest jewelry, the shiniest belt, the most flagrantly ridiculous shoes. The one I didn't pick. When it comes to style, I'm in the less-is-more camp; Us courts the more-is-more crowd. The whole charade takes me back to high school, where my excruciatingly pretty friend Ruth owned an empire-waisted dress with eyelet trim just like my mine and, by common consensus, wore it best.
I have finally figured out that if I must spend upwards of an hour in that waiting room, I'm wise to bring a book. The other day I sat down there with Marilynne Robinson's Home---on the face of it an unlikely choice. The winner of this year's Orange Prize, Home is a dense, meditative novel about guilt and forgiveness, shame and hope, the ache of absence and the unfulfilled promise of return in a family where too much has gone unsaid for too long. You can't skim a book like Home. It demands attention---not easy to summon in the clamour of a packed waiting room. How oddly, wonderfully appropriate. Faith is no less demanding, and Home explores the intertwined challenges of faith---in God, in family, in the best and truest part of oneself, otherwise known as the soul.
I'm not a woman of faith in the religious sense, so I couldn't appreciate the scriptural references that flow like a stream through this tale of a prodigal son, a dying father and the sister who attempts to bring them peace. To be honest, I've always been suspicious of religion: my father was scarred for life by the fiery fundamentalism of his missionary parents. Home has expanded my sense of what faith can be. It seems to me the essence of faith is paying attention amid the constant pressure of distraction.
A writer of devotional precision, Marilynne Robinson burnishes the tiniest details of an ordinary day (place: rural Gilead, time: the mid-50s) so that they shine like stained-glass windows. My greatest frustration while reading Home---a library copy---was that I couldn't underline the many passages that called out for a second look. Like this one, in which the daughter contemplates her father's growing fragility while cutting his hair:
"His hair had vanished, or was on the point of vanishing, not through ordinary loss but by a process of rarification. It was so fine, so white and weightless, that it eddied into soft curls. Wafted, she thought. She hated to cut it off, since there seemed very little chance that it could grow back again as it was. It was like cutting a young child's hair. But her father claimed to be irked by the prettiness of it. Fauntleroy in his dotage, he said.
"So she clipped and trimmed, making more work of it than it was in order to satisfy him that some change had been accomplished, combing it down a little with water so he would feel sleek and trim. The nape of his neck, the backs of his ears. The visible strain of holding the great human head upright for decades and decades. Some ancient said it is what makes us different from the beasts, that our eyes are not turned downward to the earth. Most of the time. It was Ovid. At the end of so much effort, the neck seemed frail, but the head was still lifted up, and the ears stood there, still shaped for attention, soft as they were. She'd have left all thelovely hair, which looked like gentle bewilderment, just as the lefted head and the ears looked like waiting grown old, like trust grown old."
I've never looked after a dying parent, any more than I have knelt in church and prayed for my soul or someone else's. Thanks to Marilynne Robinson, I know exactly how it must feel.
Other novels I've loved, for very different reasons, include Still Alice, Boys in the Trees and Then We Came to the End. For another perspective on Home, see this illuminating review by my virtual friend Kerry Clare.
Posted by Rona August 05, 2009 @ 3:00 AM. File in What I'm reading