Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson (2004)

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I loved ‘Lila’, but more than anything, it left me with the urge to re-read the book that first introduced me to Robinson’s unique and powerful narrative voice.  I’ve now read all three books in this series (‘Gilead’, ‘Home’ and ‘Lila’) and, while they are all superb, the first novel feels like a distillation of the sequels.  It is like a chemical experiment, so pure and refined I can’t think of any other novel that explores the human condition in quite the same way.

‘Gilead’ is set out as an extended letter from the ageing pastor, John Ames, to his young son.  Ames feels death is near and the book is part love-letter to his son; the only comparison I can think of is Woolf’s ‘Orlando’, which Nigel Nicholson called ‘the longest and most charming love letter in history’.  This is only a half-comparison, ‘Gilead’ deals primarily with non-romantic love, and it goes well beyond ‘charming‘; I think it is transcendent.  Ames tells his son ‘I’m writing this in part to tell you that if you ever wonder what you’ve done in your life, and everyone does wonder sooner or later, you have been God’s grace to me, a miracle, something more than a miracle.  You may not remember me very well at all, and it may seem to you to be no great matter to have been the good child of an old man in a shabby little town you will no doubt leave behind.  If only I had the words to tell you.’

The above extract brings tears to my eyes, but the book is resolutely unsentimental and there is no wallowing in emotion.  Instead, Ames is usually trying to bring his intellect to bear as he works through his own relationship with his father and grandfather in what is partly a cautionary tale to his son, partly an exploration of roots and partly a plea for forgiveness.

The novel is named after a town built, it appears, around churches and, in the early days, devoted to the abolition of slavery.  Despite its description as ‘a shabby little town‘, it seems a perfect haven of Christian goodwill and acceptance in which the only problem is curbing the charitable impulses of its inhabitants.   This external harmony however is undercut by continual deep and human sadness, very near the start we’re told ‘There’s a lot under the surface of life, everyone knows that.  A lot of malice and dread and guilt, and so much loneliness, where you wouldn’t really expect to find it, either.’  This sentence should not be read as foreshadowing, to do so would to assume an layer of artifice or contrivance.  The structure of the novel is wonderfully convincing, like a beautiful woven tapestry it develops over layers of colour and tone; because it is about the most essential human questions, it must explore grief as carefully as it does joy.

John Ames is a good man, but not a perfect man. like all the best first person narratives, Robinson exposes his flaws while he himself tries to articulate his own perception of his human failings.  Gilead, similarly, is both a haven and an escape.  Even though there is only one person telling the story we hear so many different versions of the same town.  I want to make that clear, because I’m going to finish with a quotation which I find extremely powerful, but which only covers a part of the town and says as much about Ames’ inner torment as it does about the community in which he lives:

‘I woke up this morning thinking this town might as well be standing on the absolute floor of hell for all the truth there is in it, and the fault is mine as much as anyone’s.  I was thinking about the things that had happened here just in my lifetime – the droughts and the influenza and the Depression and three terrible wars…There must have been a hundred little towns like it, set up in the heat of an old urgency that is all forgotten now, and their littleness and their shabbiness, which was the measure of the courage and passion that went into the making of them, now just look awkward and provincial and ridiculous, even to the people who have lived here long enough to know better…’

In ‘Gilead’, love is never simple.  Even the pure love between a father and his son is complicated by the fear of death, the fear of expectations and is haunted by other, less successful, relationships.  I could write so much more (I haven’t even mentioned God, murders or the American Dream) but I’m going to try to learn brevity from Robison who can fit so much into under 300 pages.  I cannot recommend her highly enough.

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6 Responses to Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson (2004)

  1. FictionFan says:

    This is one that I keep putting off on my Great American Novel list, mainly because so many reviews concentrate on how important it is to pick up on biblical references – which I won’t, not being a religious person. But your quotes, and your enthusiasm, make me think I should bash on regardless…

    • Well I certainly enjoyed it and didn’t feel a lack of understanding – I suppose you don’t always know what you’re missing… I’d say read it now and see how you go. I certainly got much more out of re-reading it thanks to knowing a bit more about American history of the time, so I think you can mostly pick your own focus and leave the experts to themselves 🙂

  2. Love your review, love your comment. I read Home, but you are sending me back to read the first one

    • It was reading ‘Home’ that made me want to read ‘Lila’, which then prompted this ‘Gilead’ re-read. I liked it so much more this time round; it’s not a book for every mood, but when you’re in the right place it’s magical.

  3. Sold! I will definitely read this, your enthusiasm is infectious 🙂

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