Novels from Robinson, Bloom, and Canin | "Home" and "Away" and "America America"

UI Writers’ Workshop faculty member Marilynne Robinson released Home this fall to great acclaim.

By coincidence, I found myself reading Home and Away in succession just as the baseball season was closing. Then I picked up a political novel—perhaps more by publisher design than by coincidence—just as the political season came to a close. My reflections on all three bring this year’s reviewing to a close.

Marilynne Robinson’s Home
I was very pleased indeed to return to the fictional town of Gilead, Iowa, in the company of Pulitzer Prize-winning author and UI Writers’ Workshop faculty member Marilynne Robinson. Her new novel, Home (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $25) is a companion—not a sequel nor a prequel—to Gilead. It features the same core characters and the narrative is concurrent with that of the previous novel.

Home is centered on the family of the Reverend Robert Boughton. Readers of Gilead will remember both him and his troubled son Jack, a character who seems to try the faith and patience, but also to inspire the love and pity, of those around him. In Home, Jack moves from the supporting role he played in Gilead to center stage.

Robinson skillfully delves into Jack’s struggles with family, faith, and issues roiling mid-20th century America. His sister Glory, who has struggles of her own, is also a beautifully drawn character and the tentative, hopeful relationship between the siblings that grows in fits and starts is poignant.

Gilead and Home establish Robinson as perhaps the finest contemporary writer examining issues of faith and the Christian faithful. The collision of belief and unbelief, of living up to one’s faith and failing to do so, of seeking personal redemption and the redemption of a loved one is handled with sensitivity and grace.

Robinson’s prose asks the reader to slow down and to enter with her into a small town in a different time. Though Home is filled with wrenching emotional moments and difficult questions of great significance, it is also welcoming.

Amy Bloom’s Away
The folks who designed the paperback edition of Amy Bloom’s Away (Random House, $14) don’t care a whit for the fine art of managing expectations.

The blurb on the cover is from the New York Times: “A literary triumph. . .” The names of the ten publications that chose Away as one of the best books of 2007 adorn the top of the inside cover. And the marketing team is just getting warmed up. The blurbs are so relentlessly glowing, they can scarcely be believed.

Indeed, I scarcely believed them.

But believe me: Away is a fabulous book. Not just a pretty good book or a better than average book. Away is a must-read book.

Lillian Leyb, a Russian Jew driven from her home by terrible violence, arrives in New York City in 1925 convinced that her three-year-old daughter is dead. Quick witted and willing to make sacrifices and accommodations in order to build a life for herself, Lillian is finding her way when she receives the shocking news that her daughter might be alive after all. She undertakes a quest that will take her overland from New York to Alaska in order to cross the Bering Strait into Siberia.

Bloom is a storyteller’s storyteller, populating her tale with a cast of quirky characters and shaping their story with prose that crackles with energy. Her knack for creating delicious sentences, striking metaphors, and revealing details gives Bloom’s story the momentum it needs to carry Lillian across a continent.

While Lillian’s story is the book’s beating heart, Bloom also reveals the future contours of the lives of the characters her heroine encounters. The device is winningly handled and allows for essential revelations near the book’s end.

Believe the hype. Pick up Away.

Ethan Canin’s America America
I dove into Ethan Canin’s America America (Random House, $27) on Election Day. In one sense, the novel’s plot, which traces a liberal politician’s downfall during a fictionalized version of the 1972 election, seemed the very antithesis of current events. But Canin, a faculty member of the UI Writers’ Workshop, has written more than a mere political potboiler. Rather, America America is an intriguing and meditative examination of the ways our families—natural and surrogate, past and present—shape our lives.

Corey Sifter, a newspaper man with blue collar roots, reflects on his time working on the estate of the wealthy Metarey family. The family’s patriarch was unfailingly generous to Corey and unwaveringly supportive of Senator Henry Bonwiller’s run for the presidency—which was destined to unravel. In its unraveling, and in the adult Corey’s efforts to make sense of the tangled web, much is revealed about what drives the behavior and choices of all concerned.

Corey’s tale is structured as a series of slowly unveiled facts that, taken together, illuminate many, if not all, of the dramatic moments and schemes that shaped his young adulthood and beyond. The narrative skips forward and back in time and occasionally the first person thread is abandoned in favor of third person speculation or, at one point, the inclusion of an official document. The present and the past tense blend and it isn’t always clear from what chronological vantage point the story is being told.

As a result, the book sometimes feels both choppy and shaggy with loose threads. Corey’s voice does much to carry the reader through, though his penchant for the slow reveal occasionally engenders annoyance rather than suspense. By and large, however, America America is a satisfying—and occasionally moving—read.

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