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This is the second book in the Gilead trilogy and covers some of the same ground as the previous one. In the previous one, we had followed John Ames’ perspective of Jack Boughton, particularly after he came home to visit his ageing father and sister, after an absence of some twenty years. John Ames had been critical of him, not least for his past behaviour but, in this book, while there is no first-person narrative as in the previous book, we see it more from the perspective of Jack’s father and sister. Robert Boughton had clearly missed his son and, when he learned that he was coming for a visit, he was overjoyed and made sure that his daughter, the unmarried Glory, prepared a lot of his favourite food, much of which she had to give to the neighbouring dog when Jack did not turn up as scheduled. Though in failing health, Robert is overjoyed when Jack turns up, but both he and Glory do have to walk on eggshells in dealing with Jack or, at least, they think they have to. For his part, Jack is also careful. However, brother and sister do clash from time to time and Robert tries to mediate, not always successfully. We know, from the previous book, what has happened but, in this book, neither the reader nor Robert and Glory know, at least initially.
We learn something of their childhood – there are six other children, in addition to Jack and Glory – and Jack’s often bad behaviour as a child. We also learn something of Glory’s past life, which has not generally gone the way she would have wanted it to. She has returned home to look after her father but also because, as she says, she has nowhere else to go. However, gradually, with Robert standing, to a certain degree, in the background but intervening now and then, when his health permits, brother and sister gradually grow closer. Indeed, Glory starts to feel, after her failed romantic relationship, that looking after her brother may well be her mission in life. They discuss their respective failed love lives, though initially Jack does not mention, as we know from the previous book, that the mother of his child is African-American or, as they said then, coloured. Indeed, race becomes an issue, as events down South involving race issues are coming to the fore. The issue is discussed between the three. I have nothing against the coloured people. I do think they’re going to need to improve themselves, though, if they want to be accepted. I believe that is the only solution, says Robert in a clearly patronising way but one which, no doubt, was not uncommon in those days.
One of the features of the previous book was John Ames’ joy in life. Joy is sadly lacking in both Jack and Glory. You misunderstand me. I mean your life has never seemed to have any real joy in it. I’m afraid you’ve never had much in the way of happiness, Glory says to her brother and he does not entirely disagree. Even Robert, perpetually at ease as regards his son, does not seem to be joyous. He has always been concerned at his son’s lack of faith but Jack makes a small effort, playing hymns for his father to listen to and even occasionally going to church. Robert would be saddened to know that Glory has doubts about her faith.
Things do seem to be going better between father and son but then there is evidence of recent thefts nearby. Jack, with his past history, is well aware that the locals probably suspect him but, more worryingly, he thinks his father does. There are little things, such as money found in a piano stool, which point to Jack’s guilt. Jack is continually waiting for a letter from Della, his partner but all his letters are returned unopened, marked Return to Sender. He is understandably upset when this happens. He busies himself in the garden and in repairing his father’s De Soto car, which has not been used for some while. When he does manage to repair it, he takes his father and sister out for a ride in it. He struggles with going to church, not because he is against it but because of the looks of the rest of the congregation and, when he finally does go, John Ames seems to deliver an impromptu sermon aimed specifically at him, which hurts not only Jack but his father. But, gradually, the healing between father and son and brother and sister moves slowly forward.
Of her four novels, I feel this is Robinson’s least successful though it is still a very fine book. It focusses almost entirely on a man who has had a good upbringing – loving, caring, large family, which, while certainly not well off, was comfortably provided for – where all the other siblings have turned out to be respectable and decent, while he has gone off the rails, even since his childhood. Can he, coming back home to his widowed father and solitary and jilted sister, make peace with them and, just as importantly, make peace with himself? This is the theme of the book and the answer that Robinson (partially) gives is that the family that prays together, stays together. She is too good a writer to take a simplistic view of this idea, which is why I have used the word partially. While a loving family may well help a lost sheep, it is not the only solution nor, necessarily, a complete solution. Robinson certainly makes this clear.
First published 2008 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux