Marilynne Robinson’s ‘Gilead’

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I told you last night that I might be gone sometime, and you said, Where, and I said, To be with the Good Lord, and you said, Why, and I said, Because I’m old, and you said, I don’t think you’re old. And you put your hand in my hand and you said, You aren’t very old, as if that settled it.

This is how Gilead, one of the greatest novels of the 21st century begins. As these first sentences suggest, it is a novel about life and death, old age and youth, faith and God. Yes, that’s right: God. Gilead is a faith-filled novel, which is not quite as rare as you might imagine in contemporary fiction.

The first person narrator, John Ames, is a small town preacher in Iowa. His life has been largely uneventful and he now has heart trouble, so he is aware that he may not have long to live. That is why he writes a letter to his son. His young son. Because the 77-year old John Ames married very late in life (there is a back story but I won’t spoil the plot by telling it here).

I have said that Ames’ life was largely eventful but that statement needs qualification. It was largely, but not completely, uneventful and the exceptions are important. In fact, the exceptions power the novel. They are told slowly (and very beautifully) but they are all the more powerful for that.

As I read Gilead (and even more, as I listened to Tim Jerome’s excellent audiobook version) I was reminded of two other pieces of literature. The first is G K Chesterton’s Orthodoxy, especially the section which focuses on the importance of wonder:

A child of seven is excited by being told that Tommy opened a door and saw a dragon. But a child of three is excited by being told that Tommy opened a door. Boys like romantic tales; but babies like realistic tales–because they find them romantic. In fact, a baby is about the only person, I should think, to whom a modern realistic novel could be read without boring him. This proves that even nursery tales only echo an almost pre-natal leap of interest and amazement. These tales say that apples were golden only to refresh the forgotten moment when we found that they were green. They make rivers run with wine only to make us remember, for one wild moment, that they run with water.

Gilead is a book full of wonder. In fact, it is one of very few novels I have read that is actually all about wonder, and that is a wonderful thing to find.

The second piece of literature Gilead brought to mind was W H Auden’s ‘As I Walked Out One Evening’:

‘O look, look in the mirror,
O look in your distress:
Life remains a blessing
Although you cannot bless.

‘O stand, stand at the window
As the tears scald and start;
You shall love your crooked neighbour
With your crooked heart.’

Gilead too is a book about love, and about loving your crooked neighbour with your crooked heart. Life is undeniably crooked for the novel’s characters – they have all experienced their fair share of pain and distress – but that doesn’t stop them loving. Gilead is a novel about the love of a father for his son, the love of a man for his wife, and the love of a preacher for Gilead, Iowa.

So, why should you read (or listen to) Gilead? Because it is a faith-filled, beautifully-written, life-affirming book. Because it is packed full of wisdom, beauty and wonder. Because it is a reminder that contemporary fiction still has a lot going for it.

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