Mary Woodward Review

Edinburgh International Book Festival, The Prodigal Son

The Prodigal Son – Marilynne Robinson in conversation with James Runcie

**** (4 stars)

I came across Marilynne Robinson’s novel Gilead some years ago.  Gilead is a fictional town in Iowa, in which the reverend John Ames lives with his much younger wife, Lila, and their young son.  He knows his life is reaching its end and feels the need to tell his son about his family history and his relationship with the boy’s mother so that the boy will understand why he did what he did.   Another major character in the book is his fellow-minister Reverend Boughton, and his wayward son Jack causes John Ames much concern.  When I first read the book I was fascinated by the strong religious themes running through the book – not very common these days – and wanted to return to absorb them more fully.

Gilead is a stand-alone novel, but Marilynne Robinson has returned to the central characters three times in all, writing Home, Lila and, most recently, Jack.  Her conversation via zoom with James Runcie was fascinating as it ranged from the possible biblical parallels with her work, the nature of the original settlements in largely Abolitionist Iowa, why she continues to return to these same characters [they get in her head and in the way of her other thoughts – “if these characters feel alive to me, then I have to let them out”], why there are so many clergymen in her books, her understanding of grace, her strong sense of humour and why the humour in her books isn’t always spotted, the current political situation in the USA, why she writes [“I’ve never written a novel with a purpose: I make art”] and the current misappropriation of Christianity by the far right in the States.

I now have to get hold of the other three novels!  I’ve read Home, a long time ago, but not the other two at all, though I really longed to know more about Lila, an enigmatic woman in Gilead.  Listening to today’s conversation I realised how much I, as a Brit, failed to pick up on much of the historical and cultural context of the novels – another good reason for sitting down with them again.

James Runcie’s final question – “what gives you hope most?” was answered by a typically loving and honest “Just dealing with people, I guess”.

Another great hour at the book festival, and another three books to get hold of…

Mary Woodward

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