In the fourth installment of Robinson's Gilead series, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author explores the star-crossed interracial romance of Jack Boughton and Della Miles in the years after World War II, when love like theirs was a crime. Jack's wayward nature doesn't help matters with Della's family, who expect better for her, a bright teacher and preacher's daughter.
From the outset Robinson reveals her subtle mastery of both character and language ... Striking too to read this novel in 2020, during a global pandemic and the protests of the Black Lives Matter movement: Robinson’s timeless prose, her Romeo and Juliet story, have an eerily timely ring. Jack and Della advance towards their love and retreat from it at the same time: the narrative pull of the book is in entering their troubled dance. Jack fits beautifully into the subtle weave of Robinson’s Gilead books;
that said, it could perfectly well be read on its own ... Her clear, fluid language is laced with the work of writers who have come before, with references to Shakespeare and Frost and Whitman ... Robinson reminds us that the world is ours to make.
... with the sublime Jack, she resumes and deepens her quest, extending it to the contemplation of race ... Robinson masterfully allows her protagonists to do the heavy lifting of the storytelling and employs deceptively simple dialogue as her primary tool. But make no mistake—there is richness and depth at every turn. The odds are stacked against this lovestruck couple. But Jack calls to mind what 1 Corinthians 13:7 says about love: It always protects, hopes, and perseveres.
[Jack] lives in a mostly miserable haze, which in turn gives the book a hazy quality, ungrounded and restless ... That Jack doesn’t fall in with the prevailing white-supremacist worldview is another of his inexplicable 'deviances'—one of the only redeeming ones—and it’s difficult to read Robinson’s intentions regarding this plot point. Jack is hardly an anti-racist visionary or a noble political dissenter, though in the previous novels he has prodded family members to reevaluate their own prejudices. He doesn’t examine with any acuity the bigotry of the world he lives in, or his failure to subscribe to it. Like so many of his personality traits, this, too, seems innate and immovable rather than learned or chosen. Yet why does the Blackness of his beloved, whose life has been marked by white supremacy, come up in his mind and in their conversations only insofar as it’s a material obstacle to their shared happiness? Why does our sensitive protagonist fail to imagine that this difference between them may be spiritually substantial and worthy of his curiosity, not because their souls are racialized but because their lived experiences have been? Is it his failure to see complexly, or Robinson’s? One begins to sympathize with Della’s relatives in their frantic attempts to shield her from him. Their refusal to see Jack’s love for her as at all moral or redemptive furthers the uneasy sense that if one is to root for these two characters, one would root for them to part, or for them to find, as Della says on one of their long nighttime walks, a world where only the two of them made the rules ... Robinson here enters Jack into the tradition of tragic heroes. To render his often-sordid path in this way dignifies a character who is routinely deprived of his dignity, which feels like a kind of authorial grace. It also makes him archetypal, his existence a parable ... Because large portions of this book occur in dialogues between Della and Jack—their voices drifting toward each other in the dark—and because Jack’s senses are often dulled or confused by misery or alcohol, Jack lacks some of the lush materiality of Robinson’s past novels. Here, as Robinson predicted, Jack proves an imperfect vehicle. Robinson’s signature is her suffusion of love and poetry into the everyday business of human beings...Each of her novels has celebrated the fact that the ineffable is inseparable from the quotidian, and rendered the ineffable, quotidian world back to us, peculiar, luminous, and precise. If Jack feels somehow less like a world and more like a morality tale or thought experiment than her other novels, that is perhaps because its central character is so ill-tethered to the world ... Still, there are passages when Jack’s eye glimmers so clearly on the moment, when his dream logic feels so apt, that the whole world Robinson has illuminated with such care and attention reappears, and we are returned to the prophetic everyday.