Top 10 books about justice and redemption

From Marilynne Robinson’s pensive Christian drama to Seamus Heaney’s blood-soaked Beowulf, here are the best books about restoring the cosmic balance

We tend to consider the words justice and redemption as two separate things: legal actions and spiritual events. But in life and in literature, they are most often blurred and intertwined. We seek justice in our understandings of family, community, nation, history, humanity and self – and we search for redemption in those places as well. Redemption is also often sought in contemplation of the natural world, the cosmos, and re-evaluations of our sense of self and spirit. High church, low church or no church, we all struggle with these questions and find common cause, if not peace, in knowing this of each other.

Both justice and redemption also share the burdens of transgression, of wrongdoing and of evil. Books offer us a shared experience with characters as they struggle with these aspects of life, and also provide a means to place our own deeds and misdeeds in silent measurement – I’m clearly not as wretched as that fellow; or, just as likely: that feels terribly close to home. In either event, our humanity is relieved as we make judgments. Redemption, it seems, is possible.

Writing my latest novel, A Slant of Light, gave me ample opportunity to consider these questions. Against a backdrop of the US civil war, I dug into the psyche of a man who has committed a double murder but seeks no escape from punishment, while others around him struggle to use the crimes to their own advantage. While justice may be a very rough-edged sword, redemption is a never-ending struggle with the nature of life. In a sense, I distrust the notion of justice; it seems mostly a matter of retribution; of punishment. Justice suggests an equilibrium restored, which is not possible. Redemption is, I think, beyond the law, and thus attainable by each person according to their own efforts and needs.

Compiling this list led me to conclude that true justice is a rare bird in serious literature. Perhaps that explains the popularity of thrillers and mystery stories, where justice appears to end these tales, satisfying a need that is elusive in life, elusive in literature. Justice and redemption are both, at best, frail defences against humanity’s darker reaches. Frail but vital.

1. Gilead by Marilynne Robinson

I’m tempted to double-down and add Lila to this list. But I had the great pleasure of rereading Gilead last summer and I find the Reverend John Ames to be one of the most interesting and engaging characters in modern literature. Robinson thinks deeply and carefully about redemptive matters of faith, family and history.

2. Absalom, Absalom! by William Faulkner

Thomas Sutpen’s story is the story of America. Taming the wilderness, hoodwinking the native people, growing rich by slavery – even as he denies his own past and bloodlines, his secret mixed-race origins colliding with his own beliefs and those of his heirs. The result is his family’s destruction, as well as his own.

3. Tess of the d’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy

Hardy’s own subtitle best sums up the drama of justice and redemption offered by this book: A Pure Woman Faithfully Presented. He employs the ancient devices of mistaken identity and misplaced heritage, but instead of playing them as a farce, this tale of rural poverty and landowners in 19th-century England is brutally tragic, as his heroine contends with an absolutely pitiless patriarchy.

4. Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

There’s no escaping it: this is perhaps the greatest novel ever written. As such, it’s brimful of wordly justice and almost utterly lacking in redemption. Tolstoy, being Tolstoy, was not content to write a novel only about a “fallen” woman, but inserts us into the political life, the feudal system and the overarching military thrust of imperial Russia. The result is tactile, satisfying and immensely disturbing.

5. In Our Time by Ernest Hemingway

With his first collection of short stories, and the landmark novels that followed it, Hemingway blew up traditional narrative with stark, unsparing and never decorative prose. Big Two-Hearted River may be the finest piece of fiction ever written about the experience of the veteran. Here, the character lives with the sense of a wholly unjust world, where redemption is a tatty flag best kept unwaved. A book, still, for our time.

6. Autobiography of Red by Anne Carson

Finding something that can’t quite be quantified or even aptly described can be joyful. This verse novel offers a pure, dazzling love of language, capturing fleeting moments of the heart. Loosely based on an ancient Greek telling of Hercules’s 10th labour, it’s also a tale of adolescent love, coming of age and, perhaps, the perils of the modern world as well as the ancient. Difficult to describe, a delight to read. Human justice and the trials toward redemption abound.

7. Divisadero by Michael Ondaatje

A family torn apart by love and violence, in three parts. A wonderful journey always toward redemption and not quite making it – perhaps. The three parts are separate but also connected. This is a poet’s novel that gains rather than suffers from the poetry; book that grows and grows with rereading.

8. Harvest by Jim Crace

An end-of-days fable about a remote English village being torn apart by the end of common ownership of land and the life that went with it. Its characters see a fearful future and the arrival of strangers, bringing with them a strange new life. Crace takes us far away – and uncomfortably close to where we are just now. There’s some sort of justice in producing writing this close to the bone. Redemption, I’m less sure of.

9. Beowulf, translated by Seamus Heaney

The tension between the pagan warrior-code depicted within this bardic saga and the early Christianity of its unknown composer is given vitality and life in Heaney’s wondrous and loamy, visceral translation. The hero saves his people from a pair of monsters, and is a celebrated king who in old age is finally killed by a dragon in an epic battle. Glory in death is matched by immortality in art, in cycles and circles that are exhilarating to discover. Here, justice is by blood.

10. H Is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald

A young woman’s grief over the early, untimely death of her father leads her into a kind of madness, which she copes with by training a goshawk for falconry. The hawk has its own form of lunacy, and Macdonald’s prose seems to allow us into its consciousness. The bird is finally untethered, allowing Macdonald to regain her own place on earth. As I came into the final quarter of this lovely, haunting book, I began to read in very small amounts, not wanting the story to end.

Jeffrey Lent

The GuardianTramp

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