Jack by Marilynne Robinson review – a Calvinist romance

Radiant and visionary, the fourth Gilead novel explores whether a minister’s prodigal son can be redeemed by love

Marilynne Robinson, having attained over the past four decades the status of literature’s spiritual leader, now expands her acclaimed Gilead trilogy into a quartet with a new novel, Jack. It might perhaps be best described as a Calvinist romance – and certainly it is difficult to imagine any other contemporary writer who could achieve so improbable a conflation of doctrine and feeling.

In 2004, 24 years after her debut Housekeeping saw her greeted as a writer of magisterial wisdom and skill, Robinson published Gilead. It takes the form of a single letter written in 1956 by the Rev John Ames to his young son: Ames’s heart is failing, and he wishes to leave behind him an account of his life and faith. The novel is distinguished by an exacting and capacious intelligence, together with an enthralled sensibility that elevates the ordinary – a child’s game, the passage of the midwestern light – to the sublime. Ames is greatly attached to his friend Robert Boughton, a retired minister whose son Jack is the cause of much fatherly sorrow, having absented himself from home and from God. When, towards the end of the novel, this prodigal son returns, he confides the secret of his absence not to his father, but to Ames.

The two novels that followed did not serve as sequels, since time for Robinson is not linear but circuitous, dependent on the repression and recursion of memory; rather, they appear more as movements in a symphony, amplifying and repeating Gilead’s established motifs. Each casts light on the events of Gilead from different sources of illumination: in Home (2008), Jack’s sister Glory returns to care for her father; in Lila (2014), the young wife of John Ames, expecting their child, reflects on her transient childhood and wonders “why things happen the way they do”.

In this fourth novel – which might be read alone, or interposed between any of its companions – Robinson turns her gaze on Jack Boughton, the prodigal son in his prodigal years. He is ragged, thin and shiftless, helplessly in bondage to a sinful disposition: a liar, a thief and a drunkard. “I am at the centre of a certain turbulence,” he says, painfully conscious that he might be taken for “any bum dozing on a bench … steeped in beer and sunshine”. It is not the sins of the fathers that are visited on this wayward child, but their virtues – he is as steeped in scripture as much as in beer, but experiences this divine knowledge as a burden, believing himself beyond redemption.

Marilynne Robinson.
Marilynne Robinson. Photograph: Gary Doak/Alamy

Leaving Gilead and his father behind, he has become a vagrant in broken-down shoes. In a small town, and in sudden rain, he encounters by chance Della Miles, a young schoolteacher and the daughter of a bishop. Remarkably swiftly, and yet persuasively, these “strayed angels” find themselves in love. He steals a copy of Hamlet from her pocket; they exchange lines of poetry; locked all night in a graveyard, carefully circumnavigating desire, they discuss Shakespeare and theology and the matter of the stars.

For Jack, it is a catastrophe; he believes himself a wrecker of lives, and yet “here he was, entrusted again … with another human soul”. He edges painfully towards respectability, and signals his willingness to remain in Della’s town by placing a potted geranium in his small bare room. He discovers that Della in her gentle way “was making everything easier. What would she find becoming in him? That was what he did.” Occasionally Della appears too virtuous by half, sanctified by love to an extent you’d think would put her beyond the touch of any human hand, still less that of a ne’er-do-well. But since the entirety of the novel is placed within the consciousness of Jack, we conceive of her as he does: the arrival of an unsought and unmerited grace. That she is a black woman further places a barrier between them, since even if Jack were to exchange the beer bottle for an ordered and virtuous life, racist laws would forbid the marriage. Here Robinson interrogates and inverts the structures of power: Della’s family has respectability and status, and when her father the bishop meets Jack he gives him “a look like a rifle shot”. This is not a new theme emerging, with Robinson hastening to respond to the Black Lives Matter movement, but rather the continuation of her examination of America’s racial trauma, which began in Gilead, with Ames reflecting on the life of his abolitionist grandfather.

Robinson’s style, which in her debut, Housekeeping, could fly off into ecstatic moments in a kind of surreal metaphysics, has been refined into a restrained and occasionally almost casual lexis, concerned with a penetrating engagement with psychological realism and the lasting import of apparently small acts. Of all her novels, this is the most frankly amusing: the deep moral seriousness of Robinson’s vision is frequently leavened with set pieces that almost approach farce, such as when Jack attempts to distinguish his own kitten from numerous identical street cats by dousing it with cheap aftershave.

The events of the novel – which are few – do not always occur in the order of time: they arrive on the page as if they have just at that moment been remembered. I confess to a degree of confusion in my early attempts to impose order, until in due course I understood the novel’s proposition that the matter of causality is irrelevant, if the love that arises between Della and Jack is more or less divinely ordained. Nonetheless, the novel has a propulsive force: Jack concludes that the fullest expression of his love for Della must be to withdraw that love entirely, leaving her to recommence her respectable life. So he leaves; will he return? On this question hangs a world of theology and philosophy – it is all a matter of predestination, of redemption, of how best to navigate the waters of morality, desire, trust. “Another theological question,” writes Robinson: “how one human being can mean so much to another … as if loyalty were as real as gravity.”

So this is a Calvinist romance, and set against a contemporary fondness for novels that deal pessimistically with an individual psychology, unloosed from any philosophical or religious foundation beyond a little light politics or feminism, Robinson’s insistence on her radiant, uncynical vision, deeply rooted in St Paul and Augustine and Feuerbach, appears downright radical. She is concerned with what the theologians call “common grace”; the capacity shared by all human creatures for receiving the gifts of life with wonder and gratitude, quite irrespective of belief or unbelief in God. In her essay collection When I Was a Child I Read Books she writes, “one of the crucial things [Calvin] brings to me, is that the encounter with another being is an occasion in which you can, to the best of your ability, honour the other person as being someone sent to you by God”. Jack’s task is to discover whether his father’s doctrines may after all not crush the love that arrived, unasked and unwanted, in a graveyard, but in fact elevate it to evidence of the divine.

George Eliot, discarding the rigid scriptures of her youth, conceived of the idea of God as “really moral in its influence – it really cherishes all that is best and loveliest in man”. This has been Robinson’s project: to perceive “this teeming world”, as she puts it, “so steeped in its sins”, and all the same to insist on what is best and loveliest. The reader may well feel subject to a sermon, but the sermon is necessary and rarely heard. “When the Lord shows you a little grace,” thinks Jack, “he won’t mind if you enjoy it.”

• Sarah Perry’s Essex Girls is published by Serpent’s Tail. Jack by Marilynne Robinson is published by Little, Brown. To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.


Sarah Perry

The GuardianTramp

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