On one, rapturous level, this book is a romance. Nothing can be wrong, at least for the moment, between these lovers. ‘And then they embraced, and what an embrace it was, as if they two had survived flood and fire, as if they had solved loneliness. Such an embrace.’ The animating spirit is Della, the holy fool, who cannot do other than she does. ‘Once in a lifetime ... you see a soul, a glorious presence out of place in the world. And if you love God, every choice is made for you. There is no turning away.’ It might be said, of course, that if you are a character in a book, your choices are limited by the intentions of the author. Jack may be a theological argument so abstract it exists beyond ideas of sin or redemption. (Is that a sin in itself?) Robinson is pulling light from darkness, life from death. It is a remarkable fact of her genius that every page or paragraph of Jack could stand for the whole book. Every time Jack says something, he seems to say it all. The problems of the novel, both moral and theological, are so perfectly paradoxical that all we can do is circle around, waiting for them to eat themselves, turn into their opposites, or cancel each other out. And then, impossibly, there is Della.
For the most part, the tension of the book emerges from its moral and theological concerns. As Jack once puts it to a minister trying to be helpful: “It’s not always clear to me how to tell grace from, you know, punishment.” The abstract formulation conceals the acutely personal form the question takes in his own mind: “If the thought of someone sweetened your life to the point of making it tolerable, even while you knew that just to be seen walking down the street with her might do her harm, which one was that?”
Is this story bound to end in tragedy? Indeed, what realistic ending to this story could even count as happy? Martin Luther is supposed to have laughed at the suggestion that happiness might be the end of human life. Some Protestants, among them Robinson, have taken seriously what he proposed as an alternative: “Suffering, suffering; the cross, the cross.”
Even in Gilead Robinson has been studying America’s difficult relationship with race. Black lives mattered before Black Lives Matter. I shan’t of course spoil the ending, but it seems significant and just right that the final word of the novel is “grace”. It is the grace of "there but for the” and the grace that is “sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness”. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about these four books taken as a whole is the whole-hearted commitment to the novel as a moral endeavour. They are beautiful, and they are true.
After a slow start, however, the novel thankfully finds its feet, though even through to the later pages it has a tendency to drag in places. What emerges, however, is a classically tender exploration of grace, love and the pains of relationships, heightened by racism and racist laws, and also by Jack’s ne’er-do-well character. The story, though somewhat timely, is also relatively old-fashioned – Jack is redeemed by Della, but it is never entirely clear why Della herself is so deeply committed to Jack.
So it is that the same thoughts recur on a loop for 300 pages, virtually all of which contain at least one sentence that sounds like a Marilynne Robinson parody. (“If the Fall had made sinfulness pervasive and inescapable, then correction might be abrupt and arbitrary, to draw attention to itself as the assurance of an ultimate order without reference to specific wrongs, which, in a post-lapsarian world, must all more or less run together.”) Worse, this taste for the punishingly theoretical doesn’t really illuminate the human aspects of the story so much as completely smother them. Even Jack and Della’s racial divide, for example, seems more like an abstract question of moral philosophy than anything properly felt by them, Robinson or us.
Robinson is a wonderful, wise writer and there are lovely things here. She is especially good on the attrition wreaked by loneliness and failure, how tightly that makes Jack hold himself. If you’re a paid-up fan you may well enjoy simply spending time with these characters again, getting answers to mysteries from the earlier books. (We learn, for example, why Jack went to prison.) If it’s your first time in Gilead, start with any one of the other three novels, and leave Jack until last.
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 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.”
Those who are willing to grant the imaginative patience that this novel requires, however, will find themselves rewarded. This is not simply a matter of the texture of the prose, though it remains true that Robinson has few equals in her evocations of the spots of time that carry meaning in her characters’ lives. “The dark and the quiet, the water at their feet making soft, idle sounds, sifting pebbles. She was in every way still. No words, just stillness, like a presence in a dream.” We might be moved by such passages, or appreciate the reminder that the nonconformism that sustains Robinson’s work, in its insistence on the primacy of individual experience, is entwined with the intensity of romanticism. Yet the point of these novels doesn’t simply lie in their sensitive writing, or in the memory of forgotten values, or in matters of cultural, literary or religious history.
Jack and Della advance towards their love and retreat from it at the same time: the narrative pull of the book is in entering their troubled dance. Jack fits beautifully into the subtle weave of Robinson’s Gilead books; that said, it could perfectly well be read on its own. It is a meditation on faith: not only faith in God but the faith human beings can place in each other, faith that will stand no matter what. Faith, indeed, that the world might improve and be redeemed. Her clear, fluid language is laced with the work of writers who have come before, with references to Shakespeare and Frost and Whitman.
This is a sunnier book than anyone might have expected, an unlikely love story, both funny and sublime: we see two souls awakening to love in that down-to-earth yet transcendent vein that is Robinson’s special hallmark. It’s a love that must destroy everything Della has worked for – the hopes of all her family. Jack makes countless resolutions to save her from himself, but then if God sends you a little grace, ‘he won’t mind if you enjoy it’. The threads of perdition and grace are cruelly intertwined. In the flicker of dark and light, both sensory and moral, she offers glimpses of the sacramental and of the soul that even Jack the unbeliever can believe in. He is an unconvincing atheist. His witticisms fail to puncture what’s demonstrated here -– the overpowering richness of religion as an imaginative frame of experience.