Jack by Marilynne Robinson is fourth in her Gilead series, following Gilead, Home and Lila and is a love story. Jack Boughton is the troubled son of Presbyterian minister, and Della, the attractive, black, high school teacher, daughter of a Methodist minister. This is a novel about the quality of love, its consequences, and whether sometimes loving someone means saying goodbye.
The story starts with such a brave scene for any author to write – a two-hander between Jack and Della as they meet accidentally at night. They are locked in a graveyard in St Louis and spend the night walking in conversation about life, their families, themselves, the world. A disreputable white man and a successful attractive black woman, in 1950s America. The conversation ebbs and flows, jumping from subject to subject as a real discussion does. They do not talk about love, but throughout the course of a number of chaste meetings, they fall in love.
It is sublime prose to sink into and absorb. Such small, familiar detail brings Jack and Della instantly to life. They are real and you care for them. The graveyard scene is long, so long I wondered if it took up the whole book.
We have heard of both these characters in the earlier Gilead books. We know Jack is a bad ‘un, as told by others. This is the first time we see into his head.
Robinson has a beautiful way of summarising truths that are easy to identify with. When Jack is with Della in the cemetery, he thinks, ‘Forever after, the thought of her would be painful, because it had been pleasant. Strange how that is.’ Jack is a mixture of insecurities, resentments, injuries and injustices brought upon himself and also by his strict religious upbringing by his pious pastor father.
Not a long book or a quick read, but absorbing. I totally understand why Jack falls for Della, wanting to save and protect her; I’m less sure why she loves him given the risks and dangers of a mixed marriage at that time. He loves his wisecracks and makes jokes at inappropriate times, misjudging the mood and causing silences. Their discussions range from Hamlet to theology, end-of-life world scenarios to poetry.
If you are new to Gilead, please don’t start with this book. Read them in order to get the most enjoyment of these complex stories of the Boughton and Ames families from Gilead, Iowa.
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