Book review: Gilead

Marilynne RobinsonGilead by Marilynne Robinson is a read like no other. A slow, contemplative journey through the memories of one man’s life, as he waits to die. In 1956, the Reverend John Ames writes a letter to his young son. It tugs the heartstrings.

Robinson writes with a clear unadorned style drawing heavily on biblical texts but it is not a religious tract, it is the story of a man’s life, his memories, his regrets and loves. The first few lines grabbed me and didn’t let me go. Do not start reading this book if you are feeling impatient. Some passages are easy and quick to read, others deserve more thought. It unwinds slowly like a length of thread, telling us the story of John Ames, his father and grandfather, the legacy of the Ames family which has been inherited by the Reverend’s seven-year old son.

I am not religious and some of the references will have passed me by. In the first half of the novel, I would think ‘oh no not another section about religion’, but as I read deeper into the book I became drawn into the stories of John Ames and his forebears and how their beliefs shaped their lives. I wanted to know what happened to John Ames Boughton, the troublesome son of his best friend and fellow reverend. I wanted to know how the Reverend Ames met his second wife. Some of the questions posed are not answered until the very end.

It is a peaceful novel, set against the backdrop of Fifties Iowa, which draws on local history including the Underground Railroad. Robinson draws a picture of the Gilead community, the people, their kindnesses, their grievances. She paints a clear picture. ‘We were very pious children from pious households in a fairly pious town.’

At times, the writing was so sublime I re-read. For example, ‘Sometimes I have loved the peacefulness of an ordinary Sunday. It is like standing in a newly planted garden after a warm rain. You can feel the silent and invisible life.’

Gilead, the second novel by Marilynne Robinson, won two prizes in 2005: the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, the National Book Critics Circle Award. I came to it with trepidation, having respected the writing style of her first novel, Housekeeping, but struggled with the pace of the narrative. Read my review of Housekeeping.

If you like this, try:-
‘Barkskins’ by Annie Proulx
‘Did You Ever Have a Family?’ by Bill Clegg
‘The Past’ by Tessa Hadley

‘Gilead’ by Marilynne Robinson [UK: Virago]

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