Gilead – Marilynne Robinson
Published: Picador (US) 2004
(Published by Virago in the UK, my edition is from the US)
I picked up a copy of Gilead in the Harvard Book Store this year that was discounted to something like $6 and couldn’t resist. Having read a review of Lila (the third book in this set) a year or two ago, these books had been on my to-read list.
Gilead is a small town in Iowa, and has been home to the novel’s narrator, Reverend John Ames (pastor in the Congregationalist church), for nearly his whole life. He is seventy-seven, and the book is written as a series of narratives from him to his young son. John Ames is ill and expects to die very soon, before he can tell his son everything he would have if he were around to see him grow up (his son is only 7).
“Your mother told you I’m writing your begats, and you seemed very pleased with the idea.”
The Reverend covers quite a time span, relating stories about his father and grandfather, from the Civil War period and moves on through his own life until present day (the 1950s). He speaks often of his concern for his wife and son; how they will live and be provided for after his death. His good friend Boughton, also a pastor but in the Presbyterian church, features regularly, as does his sometime wayward son John Ames Boughton, named for and baptised by our narrator. Rev John Ames spends a good amount of time worrying about Jack’s intentions towards his young wife, after he dies. Jack has a somewhat shady past and his relationship with the church is a bit of an unknown.
This book is simply beautiful. It is written in such simple, straightforward prose, and offers no more than a set of anecdotes and contemplations on ordinary life. It has a meditative quality, with some of the passages offering such sparse details but somehow a deep, humane insight. If you are a lover of fast-paced, plot-driven fiction, this is not the book for you.
“I wish I could leave you certain of the images in my mind, because they are so beautiful that I hate to think they will be extinguished when I am. Well, but again, this life has its own mortal loveliness.”
Central to the book is the relationship between fathers and sons, the complexity of these relationships and their endurance despite differences. Time is spent on the relationship between Rev John Ames’ father and grandfather, who were both pastors before him but disagreed strongly about armed intervention in the Civil War and abolitionist movement. Then there is the relationship between John and his father. Clearly touched upon is the relationship between John and his son, but perhaps more interesting is that between the Reverend and Jack.
“To me he always looks like a man standing too close to a fire, tolerating present pain, knowing he’s a half step away from something worse. Even when he laughs he looks that way, at least when it’s me he’s dealing with, though I truly believe I have always tried not to offend him.”
These father-son relationships are of course dealt with in the context of Christianity, with the ultimate example being between God the Father and Christ. This makes for a lot of interesting symbolism. I really enjoyed some of the Reverend’s thoughts and reflections on Scripture, and how these tied back into the story. John Ames contemplates variously his own loneliness, his family and their beliefs, hardship, and a great passage on what he calls ‘covetise’, all within the context of Scripture. It is really an interesting book in this respect – we’re put in the mind of a man whose whole life has been shaped by the town he lives in, and its quiet, pastoral life. I felt this was done very well, and very delicately.
A truly captivating read. I’ll definitely be picking up a copy of Home, which chronicles the life of the Boughton family at the same time.
***** Five stars
Have you read this or any of Robinson’s other books?