Jack and Piranesi—Marilynne Robinson, Susanna Clarke and their new novels

Updated: Feb 25

Two of our favourite novelists here at Three Things released major works in the past month. Both are women with unique talents who share Christian moorings – and both received in-depth profiles from The New Yorker this September.

Casey Cep, author of Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee, profiles Marilynne Robinson whose novel Jack is the fourth instalment in the Gilead series, “an intergenerational saga of race, religion, family, and forgiveness centered on a small Iowa town.”

Jack, son of a Presbyterian minister, is a prodigal, and his return home in Gilead was both judgment and blessing on the small town. In this new novel, Robinson moves in reverse to the time before Jack’s return to Gilead, focusing on his relationship with Della Miles, a minister’s daughter. Their interracial romance occurs in a fraught era. Cep writes,

Della, too, knows the danger she is in—whether walking down the street with her lover, eating with him in public, or entering his boarding house. And that is without even considering the troubles brought specifically by Jack, who trails trouble everywhere. “I have never heard of a white man who got so little good out of being a white man,” Della says. Newly released from prison—for once, he has been convicted of a crime he didn’t commit—Jack has resolved not only to stay sober but to accomplish something even harder: to do no harm.

Neil Gaiman hailed Susanna Clarke’s 2004 debut novel Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell as “the finest English novel of the fantastic written in the last seventy years.” Clarke is back with Piranesi, a novel of confinement tailor-made for an era of isolation. Its world bears similarities to Charn in C.S. Lewis’s The Magician’s Nephew, “a landscape full of grand palaces but devoid of people.” Laura Miller writes,

Clarke told me that the environment she created for her protagonist was alluring to her, too: “On the one hand, people have died there, and it’s quite a harsh and dangerous environment. But with the statues, and this classical, ordered world, and these vistas going on forever—like Piranesi, I find that quite beautiful.” The House reflects her lifelong attraction to vast, grand, deserted places like Lewis’s Charn. But as she came closer to finishing the novel she felt uneasy about the fact that she was “contained in a shell of illness, almost protected.” She explained, “Illness becomes a sort of protection against the world after a while.” By finishing the book, she said, “there was the danger that that shell would crack, and I would have to go out into the world.”

Read or listen to "Marilynne Robinson’s Essential American Stories" and "Susanna Clarke's Fantasy World of Interiors" at The New Yorker.

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