Book Review: Gilead by Marilynne Robinson
“A man can know his father, or his son, and there might still be nothing between them but loyalty and love and mutual incomprehension.” – Rev. Ames
I am not a very religious person and, as a consequence of that fact, I rarely read anything with any sort of religious theme or subject matter. The last book that I read that has any semblance of religion in it was a book that I found in my parent’s library when I was still in high school. I don’t even remember the title but I know that it was about Jesus being “resurrected” into the modern world and his reactions to the times. I remember liking it and, to a degree, learning something from it about modern religion. However, ever since then, I never read anything religious anymore because, in my opinion, there is something sanctimonious about religious books and reading them makes me uncomfortable.
Those very same concerns plagued me when I decided to read Gilead. I thought that Gilead would be preachy but, of course, I was proven wrong. I read a good review about Gilead written by a bookish friend that I trust when it comes to books and it was an award-winning work of American fiction but I still doubted it. But, for me, the doubt and realizing that my first impressions were wrong are part of my reading experience. It magnified the book’s message.
Gilead is written in the style of a journal by the protagonist, Rev. John Ames, a pastor in the fictional town of Gilead. The journal is a collection of thoughts that John Ames wants to share with his young son. The book is filled with theological ruminations; stories about John Ames’ father and grandfather; life in small-town America; and the pastor’s relationship with one of the more important character’s in the book, John Ames Boughton, which is John Ames’ godson.
At the onset of the novel, you will really feel that it is a small-town novel. The narrative is slow and it makes the reader match the story’s pace. When I began reading Gilead, I was instantly reminded by a line in the play Wit about the slowness of time:
You cannot imagine how time can be so still. It hangs. It weighs, and yet there is so little of it. It goes so slowly and it is so scarce. – Wit by Margaret Edson
But the slowness of Gilead magnifies the effect of the book on the person reading it. I felt that the wonders of the world are being slowly unfolded before my very eyes. There are a lot of passages that I consider beautiful and John Ames’ thoughts will certainly make you stop and think about life and all its glory and frivolities. A lot of books does that, reveal the wonders of the world, but what is exceptional about Gilead is that it reveals such wonders without pomp and grandiose declarations in order to let the readers know that the beauty of the world lies in its simplicity.
The narrative proceeds with deliberate slowness and most readers might lose their patience with the book. There are times when the book made me sleepy and bored at the beginning but, once I matched the pace, its rewards are numerous and the payoff is great at the end. The plot is simple since it is about John Ames’ relationships with his father and grandfather; his wife; his congregation; and his godson. Robinson chose to keep the dialogue to a minimum and concentrated on Ames’ thoughts. This decision made every exchange between characters essential and I felt that every word that they say to each other is important and filled with meaning. It’s a simple technique but it works.
The theology within the novel is also beautifully written. It is not overtly Biblical and preachy but, instead, it was spiritual and universal to a point that any reader of any faith can possess a certain inalienable truth by reading Robinson’s passages. The passages about baptism and communion are passages that I will hold dear in my reading life.
Perhaps the highlight of the book for me is that Reverend John Ames is well fleshed-out. He holds no moral authority and superiority over mankind just because he is a man of the cloth. Instead, he just shows that he is a man who has experienced the tragedies and the joys of human life and that he has something to say about it. He is a human that is prone to the same mistakes and temptations as any other man and he just wants his son to know about his father, the man.
Past the slow pace and the sometimes confusing narrative, Gilead is a treasure. Like the very essence of beauty and nature itself, its beauty lies on how much you are willing to see what is already there.