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Jack, by Marilynne Robinson

27 November 2020

A novel with theological freight to digest slowly, says Richard Harries

THE millions of admirers of Marilynne Robinson’s novels will be both delighted and surprised by the appearance of a new one. We had supposed that Gilead, Home, and Lila formed a trilogy. But this new one makes it a quartet.

We learned about Jack in Home. Brought up in a loving, thoroughly decent home, from an early age he had been difficult. He stole and lied and seemed to have a propensity to damage anything good. He knew this about himself and hated it, but did not seem able to change. Through all this, his family never gave up on him.

This new novel is set before the other three, just after the Second World War. Jack is in St Louis, living a down-and-out life, stealing objects of no real value, drinking, and being beaten up for failure to pay the rent in his cheap lodging-house.

One night, he finds himself sleeping rough in a large cemetery, and meets there a black woman, Della, who has got locked in by mistake. They spend the night talking together until they can sneak out, separately and unobserved, in the morning.

The book is about the developing relationship between Jack and Della. There are three main obstacles to their relationship. There was a rigid colour bar at that time, and interracial marriage was a crime. Any relationship involving a black girl and a white man was regarded as sordid. (As late as 1958, 94 per cent of Americans opposed interracial marriage, and anti-miscegenation laws were ruled as unconstitutional only in 1967.) Della’s family is distinguished and highly respected in the black community. Her father was a bishop, and Della herself a teacher. Far from opposing segregation, they supported it, as they believed that the black community needed to develop its own strengths independently of the white one, and they had great hopes for Della to play a part in this.

They are therefore strongly opposed to any relationship with Jack, and they make this quite clear to both of them. Jack knows this, and, knowing full well the kind of person he has been in the past, believes that the most loving thing he can do is to leave Della alone. But Della really does love him: she sees his soul. They cannot leave one another, believing profoundly that they are spiritually married to one another.

This is an ambitious novel: there is limited action and change of place, and a great deal going on in the mind of Jack and in conversations between him and Della, which half reveal and half conceal.

Even more than in her earlier three novels, each sentence in Jack is carefully crafted, often carrying theological freight. It is, therefore, not a book to be hurried through when one is drowsy. Jack is not an easy person to like, with the constant turning over of his self-tormenting mind. Sometimes, one would have liked to have rather less of this and more of the tenderly loving Della and what was going on in her mind.

The Rt Revd Lord Harries of Pentregarth is a former Bishop of Oxford. His latest book is Seeing God in Art (SPCK, 2020).


Marilynne Robinson
Virago £18.99
Church Times Bookshop £17.10

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