08 October 2020, The Tablet

The theft of happiness

The theft of happiness

Marilynne Robinson after receiving the US National Humanities Medal from former President, Barack Obama
Photo: PA/Sipa USA, Drew Angerer


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Can Jack change? He says, “I aspire to utter harmlessness.” But is he doomed to wreak destruction? This is the question around which pivots this fourth novel in a series begun by Marilynne Robinson with Gilead in 2004, followed by Home in 2008, and Lila in 2014.

Everything takes place in the Protestant world of the southern United States, in the 1950s. Here “the world’s great work was the business of men, of gentle, serious men well versed in Scripture and eloquent at prayer, or, in any case, ordained in some reasonably respectable denomination”. Catholics do not count and are only mentioned once as “people they barely knew”. The guiding light is Calvin. Yet I cannot think of any other contemporary novelist who explores more profoundly how religious doctrine is tested against lived ­experience. Is it possible to forgive those who have sinned against one grievously? Can we judge others? Are we free?

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