Marilynne Robinson is the world’s greatest living novelist. I know that is a huge claim to make, considering she has only written four novels, but as one novel has won a Pulitzer and another the Orange prize, she deserves special attention. Why is that? I think it is because she has created a unique genre of novel, the pastoral novel. Not in the sense that Thomas Hardy wrote pastoral novels about the bucolic charms of his beloved Wessex. Marilynne Robinson writes novels about pastors. That is why I am so drawn to them, and why I urge you to step into her world this summer.
The huge industry that publishes novels has done to death several different genres. Romantic fiction from Jane Austin and the Brontes to the modern chick flick can surely have nothing much left to say. Crime novels are still a huge industry, as are legal and military thrillers, but like their TV adaptations, you do tire of them after a while. Couldn’t someone create a new genre of drama sometime? Just as I was thinking that, I stumbled onto Robinson’s novels via Twitter, and they are a door into a world I have inhabited for twenty five years in pastoral ministry, and they are written as great literature.
Gilead is the name of a small town in Iowa on the American prairie, where John Ames is a pastor reaching the end of his life, and writing the book to his young son so he can understand his roots when his father is gone. The framework of the story only suggests itself gradually, and key facts slip effortlessly into the cake while the mixture is slowly stirred at the kitchen table. The main interplay is between the Ames family and the Boughtons, the local Presbyterian pastor and his family. Meanwhile, the beauty and thoughtfulness of small town America is worked out in domestic scenes so rich and warm that you feel yourself invited to sit at the table. There is plenty of theology that comes up in conversation, and the struggles that a pastor has in trying to care for his flock, and the frustrations he has with those who reject the gospel. All of this is brought to life in the most dazzling prose that will ease the stresses of life from you and evoke a world of swing-seats out on the stoop, rocking chairs by the fire and a hardwood kitchen table where meals are shared as expressions of the gospel. Robinson establishes a huge sense of place and lets you inhabit it and feel fully at home. But do not imagine that these sedate scenes are free from trouble. There is grit in the story. Dark tones come to the surface, just as rural life can often be darker than any urban dystopia, and Jack Boughton is the source of the trouble. This gives a brilliant opportunity to trace the interplay between the grace of God in the gospel and the prodigal who rejects it and runs away. How is he to be handled? Who will say the wrong thing? What are his real motives? What is he really thinking as the pastor talks to him? The characters are drawn so brilliantly that not one of them is a cliché.
Home is the second novel of the series, and the focus moves from the Ames household to the Boughtons. Young Jack Boughton has been away from Gilead for twenty years, but now he comes home seeking refuge from his past. The question is how his father and his sister Glory will handle this, and how Jack will respond to God’s grace when he encounters it. I found my heart aching for him as the conversations were played out across the kitchen table. The heart of a pastor aches to see gospel change in those who waste their lives, but it is a change that only God can give. Will it come to Jack as he tries to rebuild his life? There are layers to this exploration of regret and repentance that run so deep, and both father and sister find their own hearts and attitudes examined. I am confident that there is no work of fiction that explores this better.
I have yet to read the third in the sequence, Lila, which tells the story of Ames’ second wife and how she came to Gilead from a background of wandering and tragedy, and then married him. But I am thinking I need to re-read the nuances of Gilead again first to be ready to savour its riches. And sit by that fireplace and nod my agreement with the old man.