Reviewed by Heather O’Connor
Marilynne Robinson
Virago Press $29.99

Recommended by Barack Obama as one of his top books for 2020. The rest of her fans have been eagerly awaiting this fourth in her Gilead series: Gilead, Home and Lila, each of which can be read as a stand-alone novel, but each is also an important part of the, not strictly sequential, series. Set in the late 1940s, the books centre on the Boughton and Ames families, strong Presbyterians. Each book has one central character, in this case, Jack, the wayward son of the Reverend Robert Boughton. Jack is a liar, a thief, a heavy drinker and an outcast from the family. He falls in love with Della, daughter of a Methodist preacher, successful in her profession as a teacher, deeply loyal to her parents and siblings. Both families are equally opposed to the relationship. He is white, she coloured. Inter-racial relationships in Missouri (and elsewhere) are not just frowned on, but illegal, meaning certain dismissal for her and possible jail time for them both. He struggles with the harm he is doing to her, while she remains calm and steadfast in the face of all the problems they face. Racism is the bedrock of the ill-fated love story but the skill of the writer doesn’t allow it to overwhelm the reader (or the lovers).
The structure of the book was a real challenge for me – the first third is a dialogue between the two when they meet in a cemetery where they spend the night, knowing the dire consequences if they are caught together. But I was so glad I persisted through the night with them. Robinson’s treatment of race, of religion and of the complexities of family are second to none among American writers. Strongly recommend reading all four of the Gilead series – this is the most challenging but very rewarding. No wonder Obama liked it!