Review: Gilead

Gilead by Marilynne Robinson, 2004
Winner: 2005 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, 2004 National Book Critics Circle Award

TLDR: A brief, continuous narrative about a man suddenly desperate to chronicle his life for a young son he will not see grow up. John Ames is a church pastor, a profession passed down from his father and grandfather, the latter of whom was fiercely abolitionist and determined to enact good until the very end of his life. The story dips in and out of various times, plots and characters, but Robinson’s peaceful and philosophical prose (perfect for a preacher!), makes this a book about hope and the blessings of life. It is oddly uplifting, determined to see a hopeful future for America, and, for John Ames, a good life for his son.

Synopsis: In 1956, toward the end of Reverend John Ames’s life, he begins a letter to his young son, a kind of last testament to his remarkable forebears.

Publisher: Little, Brown
Pages: 288


(Reading time: 4 mins)

One of the main things I couldn’t help but think while reading this book, is that it was quite refreshing to read about someone who tries to be a good person. The novel is about trying to be moral, forgiving, positive (it really is uplifting rather than patronising). I read this book while in the midst of – and kind of as a break from – several other long, involved literary novels, and it felt easy the entire time. Maybe also reading it during a global pandemic meant something – like it gave me a tacit understanding of the endless repetition of human nature.

The novel is, technically, epistolary. It takes the form of an unending letter from John Ames, an aging pastor with a heart condition, to his young son. It is written using the first and second person, which creates an intimacy that directly invites the reader in. For all of these pages we are privy to the best and worst moments of John Ames’ life. The age of his son – only seven, while he is in his seventies – also means we, as the reader, are more involved. This is a letter his son will read when he is older, but we are reading it as it is being written, like a test audience. This book does have a sequel but it stands very much on its own – although the story picks up and drops various story threads, the letter is complete. We know from the beginning the narrator is dying, so there is a eulogistic aspect to the entire book, but it does not feel cloying. The book is not long, but it is slow. It takes time to divulge plot and mystery, but a peace is retained throughout.

I have sometimes found books about grief to be heavy, hard to get through. (This was my main difficulty in reading Hamnet.) But the inevitable death of John Ames, and the deaths he has witnessed in his life, although sad, do not feel overwhelming. It is a tender kind of expectant grief. Of course sad. But we are being told about a life lived fully at the same time as being told to let go. John Ames reflects, looking at his young family and the congregation that is gearing up to move past him, about “the onwardness of the world.” This story continues beyond this letter, and after us. 

In many ways the book is like a diary entry, meandering in and out of subjects. It tells the story of the narrator’s grandfather, an irreverent and fearless church leader who “preached people into abolitionism,” but was not well-liked by his son. And this is a story about fatherhood and sons. The name of the town itself, ‘Gilead,’ is a Biblical town in the story of Joseph (just Google it, lol). And John Ames’ legacy begins here with this preacher, left one-eyed by the Civil War, prone to stealing from his family for a greater cause, “struck by lightning.” The grandfather’s story begins a theme of the importance of racial justice that continues throughout the book. Gilead is a town in Iowa, which was part of the Underground Railroad, and this letter is written during Jim Crow. American religion and American slavery are interlinked in this book, foregrounded often, and as his letter continues, John Ames has to confront his own contribution to his grandfather’s legacy. What is he doing for a fairer society, for example? It is interesting that so much candour in the narrator nonetheless fails to divulge these answers (some are divulged, but that is part of the plot so I won’t get into it!). It is a reminder that as honest as John Ames is trying to be, he is also very aware he is writing a letter to his son. And he wants to be seen well by him.

John Ames also talks about his father: a man haunted by both his own father and his eldest son, never quite finding peace in any beliefs of his own and so disparaging of theirs. There are also wives: his son’s mother, Lila, who he fell desperately in love with at sixty and remains in love with every time he mentions her; as well as his first wife, a childhood friend he was always going to marry and who he grieves, who died in childbirth along with their daughter. Another prominent character is John Ames Boughton – the narrator’s namesake, the son of his closest friend – who revists the town of Gilead. The narrator expects misfortune to come along with him. A lot of the narrative is taken up by this man and the narrator’s fears of him, alongside his desperation not to think badly of him because of a chequered past.

A lot of the book is of course religious theologising. Theology plays a big part in this book but I most enjoy the way it’s a constant, internal narrative, of someone studying themselves through their faith, rather than a kind of moralising. It is confession more than anything else, and who does a pastor confess to? I would say this is the book’s main theme but truthfully, it is hard to pick out a single theme: religion, love, family, forgiveness. Each of these crop up repeatedly, giving way to one another and merging into a whole and complex narrative that makes it impossible to separate one from the other. I think this is largely because of the way it is written, without separation into chapters or parts – as a letter, essentially. Ultimately, the book is about old age and how it is living in both a present you respect and a past no one else recalls.

Is it worth reading? Yes – and now’s a good time, I think.

What comes next? The sequel is Home, a book I will review shortly as part of my Reading Women Challenge, but the series is a trilogy that ends with Lila.

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