Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

A Woman Amazed

Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

A Woman Amazed

Article excerpt

Byline: CLAIRE HARMAN

WHEN I WAS A CHILD I READ BOOKS: ESSAYS by Marilynne Robinson (Virago, [pounds sterling]16.99) MARILYNNE Robinson used to be famous for the slowness of her output: the gap between her brilliant debut novel, Housekeeping, and its Pulitzer-winning sequel, Gilead, was 24 years. She wrote a couple of rather eccentric nonfiction books in the interval -- one about Sellafield and a collection of essays on Modern Thought -- but the onset of eminence has speeded up production considerably, and this is her second collection of non-fiction since winning the Orange Prize for Home in 2009.

Robinson is without doubt a great novelist but is she an interesting polemicist? Her known preoccupations -- with the role of religion in society, the distinctive qualities of the American sensibility, Calvinism, culture, the cosmos -- are all on display again here, in vessels of impeccable seriousness.

Her essay on liberality is lofty, her discussion of Mosaic law meticulously erudite, her celebration of God's "wondrous love" impassioned. "I have become suspiciously articulate and opinionated," she says in a wry aside about her own emergence as a commentator, and she certainly seems to be enjoying herself.

Everything about her tastes and style is uncommon: she likes nothing better than to pick holes in recent theological scholarship, mull over the doctrines of the Marcionites (yes, you'll have to look them up) or flick through her Douay-Rheims Bible in search of a pertinent gloss. Whether the majority of her audience, who will be coming to this book because of their admiration for her subtle novels of domestic life in the Middle West, will be able to share these enthusiasms is another matter.

Robinson is intolerant of secularism in any form -- "lacking the terms of religion, essential things cannot be said" -- and says silly things such as scientists are "not being scientific" if they disregard religion. …

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