Reviewed by Harriet
He was walking behind her, two steps behind. She did not look back. She said, “I’m not talking to you”.
“I completely understand”.
“If you did completely understand, you wouldn’t be following me”.
He said, “When a fellow takes a girl out to dinner, he has to see her home”
“No, he doesn’t have to. Not if she tells him to go away and leave her alone”.
So begins the relationship which is central to this very beautiful, very sad novel. It’s a while before the events of that evening will be revealed. Meanwhile a year has gone by, and these two people, who we now learn are called John (or Jack) Broughton and Della Miles, re-encounter each other by chance one night in a locked graveyard. They talk all night. And, if they hadn’t already done so, they fall in love.
For most people, this could seem to be a simple enough matter. But for Jack and Della, it brings what might appear to be insuperable problems. For Jack is white, and Della is black. And in the 1940s, when this novel is set, such a union is punishable by law and carries a sentence of imprisonment for both parties. And, if that were not enough, Jack knows himself to be unreliable, untrustworthy, often dishonest.
Gradually, through his own constant self-examination and his conversations with Della, his history is revealed. He is the youngest son of a Baptist minister in rural Iowa. From early childhood, he has been given to stealing, lying and destruction, but his father adores him and recognises his good heart, his intelligence and his abilities: ‘Whenever his father found one of his drawings, he’d say “He’s the clever one. He’s going to surprise us all one day”’. As a young adult, he gets a local girl pregnant and leaves town, not returning for twenty years, during which time he has scratched a living, spent time in prison, had many periods of alcoholism. Early on in his relationship with Della, he describes himself as ‘the Prince of Darkness’, a label he has given himself often in his own mind, and he tells her frequently that he is no good for her, and will only cause her trouble and pain. But Della sees past all this and loves him for what she truly believes him to be: she tells him she can see his soul, and it’s one of the purest she has ever encountered.
Della is beautiful. The daughter of a bishop who is the head of the Black church in Memphis, she has left home to become a schoolteacher in St Louis, where this novel is set. She’s refined, well educated, a lover of poetry and of Shakespeare. In fact, most of these are things she has in common with Jack, who can quote the Bible, Shakespeare and poetry, and spends many hours of his otherwise empty days reading in the public library. Their upbringings as the children of ministers mean they can discuss predestination, something that has preoccupied Jack all his life: can he rely on God’s grace, or was he doomed to damnation from the day he was born?
So this is a love story – one of star-crossed lovers, you could say. Despite his conviction that his presence in Della’s life will only hurt her (a view that her family absolutely agrees with) he does his best to live up to her expectations of him. He gets a job, makes an effort – not always successful – to stop drinking, buys new clothes.
Della was speaking to him sometimes in his thoughts, or she was quiet, simply there at the edge of his vision. In her gentle way she was making everything easier. What would she find becoming in him? That was what he did. And by putting himself in the way of survival, not to put too fine a point on it, he was doing what she had asked him to do, so forthrightly. Can these bones live? Oh Lord, you know. But for you, Miss Miles, I am eating this sandwich, for you I am smiling at this stranger, for you I am trying to sleep. He could not imagine an occasion when she might acknowledge any of this. No matter. Their lives were parallel lines that would not meet, he knew that, he would see to that. But they defined each other, somehow.
But the parallel lines do meet in spite of Jack’s conviction that they will have to ‘live for a month on just passing in the street’. The strength of their love for each other overrides every obstacle, including Della’s family disowning her. As the novel ends, ‘They were together, after their fashion, and the world was all before them, such as it was’.
If you are coming to Marilynne Robinson’s novels for the first time, you might wonder why I describe this as a sad novel. Isn’t this some sort of happy ending? But if you’ve read the series of interconnected novels that began with Gilead (2004), continued on to Home (2008), and Lila (2014, reviewed here by Simon), you will already know Jack Broughton and his history well. All three are set about eight years after Jack, and in them we learn that Jack returned home to Gilead after twenty years’ self-imposed exile, seeking a home for himself, Della, and their child. At the end of Home, having found that they would not be welcome, he sets off for an unknown destination. Soon after he leaves, Della arrives with their son Robert. Devastated to find he has left no forwarding address, she asks the family to let her know if he gets in touch. Will he?
In Home, Jack’s sister Glory describes him with a quotation from the Messiah: ‘a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief, and as one from whom men hide their face’. He is without doubt one of the most compelling characters in contemporary fiction. It’s impossible not to love him, with all his weaknesses, just as his own father does. The old man recognises Jack’s fundamental sense of estrangement: ‘“I just never knew another child who didn’t feel at home in the house where he was born. I always felt it was sadness I was dealing with, a sort of heavyheartedness.”’.
All this may make you think that you have to read the three preceding novels to fully appreciate Jack. But the novel can certainly stand on its own, as a study of a remarkable, complex character, a love story, an exploration of faith and doubt, and a novel that resonates strongly with our current climate of Black Lives Matter. In fact, if you’re new to Robinson, this might be a good place to start. Owing to the reverse chronology of the series, you can then read the others to see what happened next. Robinson is an extraordinary writer. I hope we haven’t seen the last of her explorations of this fascinating family.
Harriet is one of the editors of Shiny New Books.
Marilynne Robinson, Jack (Virago, 2020). 978-0349011813, 320pp., hardback.
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