Across the racial divide, Marilynne Robinson’s ill-fated love story


Jack Ames Boughton, soi-disant prodigal son of a Presbyterian preacher, is conjured in this new novel with a literary magician’s finesse: Jack has the kind of presence one ascribes to great stage actors; he looms, he introspects, he fascinates, he disappoints, and he compels. His voice, the one that persisted in Robinson’s head, is soon lodged in ours – Robinson is a virtuoso of dialogue.

She is also structurally daring: the novel’s opening scene is a brief, fraught exchange between Jack and Della, articulate daughter of an African Methodist Episcopal preacher, and ends with a disgraced Jack returning Della’s copy of Hamlet to her doorstep. A year later, inside a darkening cemetery, they encounter one another again. Della is there by accident (inadvertently locked in after closing time), Jack by intent (it is one of his nocturnal haunts). And for 79 pages Robinson sustains a dialogue between these two.

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The cemetery is a locked, green-black place, part enchanted, part threatening. In the still segregated post-World War II city of St Louis, Missouri, their being caught there together would mean disgrace and dismissal for Della, a teacher at the esteemed Sumner High School, and possible re-incarceration for Jack, whose carelessness has already earned him a brief spell in jail.

So the structure is established: black woman, white man falling in ill-fated love (Della’s imposing preacher father will prove implacably opposed). And Jack, having already shamed his family and ever-forgiving father with calamitous irresponsibility, faces the prospect of tragedy, of doing harm to a woman whose presence, and whose calm is redemptive grace to him: ‘‘She said nothing, studying his face forthrightly, as she would certainly never have studied anyone in circumstances her manners had prepared her for. He let her look, not even lowering his eyes. He was waiting to see what she would make of him, as they say. And then he would be what she made of him.’’

‘‘Forthright’’ is the word for Della, and the essence of her significance for Jack. She loves without illusions. And her voice, ‘‘soft and gentle’’ like Cordelia’s, tells him truths. The allusions to Shakespeare throughout the novel come as naturally as rain, just part, like the scriptural references, of Robinson’s experiential vocabulary. And the novel’s ostensible structural engine – the tension inherent in black-white American inter-action – is never cranked into operation. It is just there, an unavoidable element of American experience, of the world Robinson inhabits. She writes to understand, to illuminate, not to grandstand.

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It is so easy to be distracted by American stereotypes, by America’s own habits of typifying, or exceptionalising itself. Robinson’s novels are stringent correctives. Her Iowa, her Missouri, her Kansas, her Illinois are real places, not the locales of myth (or political opportunity). And what she writes about them is particular, and often shocking.

As one character puts it: ‘‘It wasn’t so long ago that a man had to anchor a raft in the middle of the Mississippi River to teach our children at high-school level, because it was illegal to do that in Missouri and in Illinois.’’

But the love story – and it is transcendently that – makes one ponder, with Jack, a perennial mystery, one that leaves us with hope: ‘‘… how one human being can mean so much to another, in terms of peace and assurance, as if loyalty were as real as gravity.’’