“This is an interesting planet. It deserves all the attention you can give it.”
Gilead by Marilynne Robinson
Published by Picador, 2004
Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars
Re-readability: I definitely hope to return to this one soon.
Reviewed by Indiana
Spoiler free review
I came to this book with few, if any, expectations. Yet, it managed to surprise me.
Told from the perspective of Congregationalist minister John Ames, as he’s dying and hopes to tell his son everything he needs to know. Ames, who is 76, writes in letter-like prose to his son, who is seven and the result of Ames’ marriage to a much younger woman.
Moving fluidly between Ames own childhood and scenes from his son’s, the book covers a lot of ground with its packed prose. It’s rarely sentimental. Even as Ames stares in the face of his approaching death (his doctors tell him that his angina pectoris will soon kill him), he remains not only steadfast, but also quietly, lovingly, humorous. He would be considered a “Mary Sue,” character if he weren’t so interesting. His morals are always in check, but his family history is dark; with a grandfather, who was also a preacher, fighting in the Civil War, coming home to give hard sermons, all with a pistol in his belt. Ames also had a brother who went off to study in Europe, became an Atheist and was eventually cut off from the family, though Ames quietly kept in touch with him.
Through the various conflicts, Ames remains a pacifist and a sort of soft philosopher in his own right. Not that his thoughts or theories aren’t intricate or ones that don’t deserve much thought. They do. It’s that they’re told in such simple terms (he is, after all, writing for his young son), that you almost don’t notice that it’s philosophy (or rather sermon notes): “My point here is that you never do know the actual nature of your own experience. Or perhaps it has not fixed and certain nature.”
Beyond the looming knowledge that Ames will die and that the lovingly crafted letter will end, there’s a bit of drama concerning a few other characters and their “unsavory” son. Though that doesn’t come into play until later on and only serves to see Ames struggle with his own morals within the context of societal norms.
In short, it’s not the type of book I would have probably picked up if I’d known what it was about. Thank goodness I didn’t.
From the start, Robinson doesn’t hold back: “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.”
The style is a little funny, with the lack of regular dialogue and punctuation. But it’s gripping in it startlingly harsh truth and its juxtaposition with the sweet perspective of a child. That’s how the whole book feels in a way: sweet yet startlingly harsh at times.
It’s not a perfect book; there were certainly points where I wanted Ames to delve into another topic. But even that seemed fitting: reflecting the way a church-goer would fidget in his/her pew if the sermon were going on a bit too long.
Gilead is probably already considered a modern American classic, but I hope it isn’t just reserved for classroom reading, as is the fate of some classics. It deserves to not only be studied but soaked in and pondered over.