Jack by Marilynne Robinson

Reviewed by Rod McLary

Marilynne Robinson is reputed to be one of America’s finest contemporary writers – a reputation with which I would wholeheartedly agree.

Jack – her most recent novel – is a prequel of sorts to her series of novels comprising Gilead, Home and Lila.  The story is set just after World War Two and takes place in St Louis Missouri and focusses on the eponymous protagonist Jack and his love affair with an African-American woman Della Miles.  Given that at the time St Louis was a segregated city and fraternisation between whites and African-Americans was a criminal offence, the love affair is necessarily constrained and ultimately doomed.  Nonetheless, it is a beautiful story told with compassion and understanding of the plight of the two lovers.

Readers of the earlier novels and particularly of Gilead would be aware that Jack Boughton is the son of the Reverend Robert Boughton and seen by many in his home town as the black sheep or prodigal son – both terms which are apposite given his father is a minister in the Presbyterian Church.  Jack left his home town in disgrace twenty years previously due to his seduction and subsequent abandonment of a young woman who later gave birth to his daughter.  The daughter of this relationship died at age three years poor and uncared-for.  In Gilead, it is revealed that Jack had returned home because of his emotional pain at being separated from his common-law wife and their son because of the segregation laws.  This is the link to Jack.

Jack returns to the time when he meets Della and the novel charts the trajectory of their relationship culminating in their forced separation.  Essentially, the novel is an interior monologue delivered by Jack as he recalls his life in St Louis and his meeting Della and their subsequent love affair.  By his own admission, Jack is ‘a confirmed, inveterate bum’ [7] who lives in a rooming house and depends on petty theft and short-term employment to support himself.  The novel opens with Jack following Della home after their interrupted restaurant dinner where Della was abandoned by Jack and left to pay the bill for the uneaten meal.  The reason for the abandonment is revealed further into the novel and it provides additional evidence to support Jack’s self-assessment as a ‘bum’.

As the novel is – as stated above – a monologue, the time sequence is not linear.  Thoughts do not necessarily run in sequential order and the author has brilliantly captured the random nature of Jack’s thoughts and his recollections of the events surrounding his love for Della without losing any power or momentum in the narrative.  As the narrative unfolds, the reader intuitively forms a picture of Jack and his self-awareness of the limited nature of any offer he can realistically make to Della.  He has already determined that ‘there was nothing to recommend him to anyone’ [186] but in spite of this, he wishes that Della could ‘stay for the rest of [his] life’ [200].

Along the way, Jack and Della – also the child of a minister – discuss religion and poetry.  References are made to Robert Frost and Walt Whitman in particular and it can be no small coincidence that Frost’s earlier poetry was noted for his use of monologues and dialogues where thoughts and ideas are teased out through the poetry.  Jack’s and Della’s discussions are complemented by his conversations with a local African-American minister where attempts to answer questions such as ‘how to tell grace from punishment’ and ‘the difference between faith and presumption’ [167] are made.

Marilynne Robinson was raised a Presbyterian and later became a Congregationalist; her Congregationalism and her interest in the ideas of John Calvin play an important part in her novels and Jack is no exception.

Ultimately though, Jack is a love story between a white American man and an African-American woman and, on those grounds alone, there can be no future for them.  Jack is rejected by Della’s family and there is no choice but for him to leave Della and St Louis.

The novel concludes with setting out the dichotomy of guilt and grace – Jack may choose to leave with guilt from what he has done to Della or grace from the ‘sweet marriage … and the loyalty which restored them both’ [309].  The reader – and probably Jack too – does not learn which was chosen although the answer may be found in a reading of Gilead.

Jack is a fine novel, beautifully and intelligently written with compassion and wisdom shining through every page.  It sits with ease alongside the author’s previous three novels and deserves to be read by every reader who values literature.

The novels of Marilynne Robinson have won many awards including the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, The Women’s Prize for Fiction, the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Hemingway Pen Award.  In 2013, she was awarded the National Humanities Medal by President Obama.

Jack

[2020]

by Marilynne Robinson

Hachette

ISBN 978 0 349 01180 6

$29.99; 309pp

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