Jack by Marilynne Robinson review – a Calvinist romance

Radiant and visionary, the fourth Gilead novel explores whether a minister’s prodigal son can be redeemed by love

Marilynne Robinson, having attained over the past four decades the status of literature’s spiritual leader, now expands her acclaimed Gilead trilogy into a quartet with a new novel, Jack. It might perhaps be best described as a Calvinist romance – and certainly it is difficult to imagine any other contemporary writer who could achieve so improbable a conflation of doctrine and feeling.

In 2004, 24 years after her debut Housekeeping saw her greeted as a writer of magisterial wisdom and skill, Robinson published Gilead. It takes the form of a single letter written in 1956 by the Rev John Ames to his young son: Ames’s heart is failing, and he wishes to leave behind him an account of his life and faith. The novel is distinguished by an exacting and capacious intelligence, together with an enthralled sensibility that elevates the ordinary – a child’s game, the passage of the midwestern light – to the sublime. Ames is greatly attached to his friend Robert Boughton, a retired minister whose son Jack is the cause of much fatherly sorrow, having absented himself from home and from God. When, towards the end of the novel, this prodigal son returns, he confides the secret of his absence not to his father, but to Ames.

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