December 2020 – January 2021

by Helen Elliott

‘Jack’ by Marilynne Robinson
History and suffering matter in the latest instalment of the American author’s Gilead novels

Marilynne Robinson’s first fiction, the celebrated Housekeeping, was, she says, a series of metaphors strung together. My ideal review of Jack (Virago) would be to string together a series of her beautiful observations. Opening with: “Forgiveness scares me. It seems like a kind of antidote to regret, and there are things I have not regretted sufficiently.”

Jack follows GileadHome and Lila. Written over two decades, each novel is angled upon one person, one soul in the peaceful, fictional town of Gilead, Iowa. In biblical terms Gilead is a place of witness. The novels stand alone but are richer read as one long novel, a palimpsest of two families, the Boughtons and the Ameses. Jack is the son of the Reverend Robert Boughton. His middle name is Ames, named for his father’s best friend, the Reverend John Ames. Jack, a devoted liar, sometimes drops the Boughton and uses Ames. 

Robinson’s fascination is with a person’s character, not plot. Despite efforts to the contrary, life isn’t a plot. And Jack, beloved son of his father, disliked godson of his father’s best friend, sinner, outcast, thief, a man possessing “a little fascination with damage”, has a character that Robinson writes with the devastation of love. Has she drawn any other protagonist with such particularity? Is the greatest sinner in need of the greatest grace? Jack, burdened with an unusually delicate conscience, suffers, and suffering matters to Robinson. She insists it matter to us.

History, imprinted on our daily lives, also matters to her because it helps explain the present. Jack is set in the late 1940s, in segregated Missouri. Jack is a man well acquainted with the night, sleeping on benches, drinking too much, relying on handouts from his saintly brother. He sardonically calls himself the Prince of Darkness, yet women find him attractive. They like his lean looks, his bouts of candour and his beautiful manners. Jack believes his father’s contention that “you are not good for your own sake … You are good as a courtesy to everyone around you”. His aim in life is to be harmless.

The novel opens in a famous white cemetery in St. Louis, a nightstop for the homeless. Jack, to his shock, sees Della, a young woman he had loved from the moment they met. They had parted on a sour note, but here she is, accidentally locked in. They talk until dawn. Della is a high-school teacher, and, like Jack, her head is radiant with poetry and ideals. That long, rainy night, walking barefooted through the grass, her arm lightly on Jack’s, cloistered with stony angels and cherubs and in the company of the dead, Della falls in love with Jack. In this place they see each other’s souls. A mutual irradiance. The reversals, the obliquities in this long opening stretch are daring: the absurd coincidence of meeting there, falling in love in the shade of night, glancing eternity but not death. It demands trust from the reader. 

And Della is black. Jack might be the lowest of the low, but he is white. Pre civil rights, the racial laws will not let them marry or cohabit. Della’s prideful and educated family feel this even more than Jack’s, so Della must choose between Jack and her family. And then a new history in this antagonistic society will begin.

Robinson takes patience. And attentiveness. When you are talking about the soul, paying attention is the greatest courtesy you can give. Not just to this graceful, gloriously serious novelist, but also to yourself.

Helen Elliott
Helen Elliott is a literary journalist and writer.

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