Gilead by Marilynne Robinson
Look, this isn’t a review. I don’t want to call it that, I expect to be doing some more musing on this book as I digest it and come to terms with what I’ve read. I bought my paperback copy of Gilead back in 2009, so says the receipt left inside it. I remember starting it a couple of times and something must have distracted me because since 2009 Gilead has been lying around on a bookshelf or in a box somewhere, unread. I confess, that’s a terrible sin.
I was going to be staying at Coolnagreina YWCA in Greystones for two weeks while I helped to lead at a World Harvest Mission thing called Encounter, so I took Gilead along and decided I’d read it. I don’t know what was different this time, but I haven’t been so absorbed in a book for a while.
I really don’t know how a person can write like Marilynne Robinson. How does she have such insight? How does she know? I’m certainly no Rev. John Ames (the book’s protagonist) – I have a long long way to go – but I identified with the character and was very moved by his words.
People have criticised this book because it is slow-paced and not much actually happens. Robinson herself admits that the book might be called “unpublishable”: there’s an elderly Congregational minister in rural Iowa, he’s dying and he writes a long letter to his only son – that’s the book. John Ames is a thoroughly good and kind character, deeply religious, full of integrity, piety and love – and the book is still interesting. Gilead is full of theology, but has been successful as a mainstream novel.
Reading Gilead you get to look into the soul of a man who has walked long with the Lord, that’s what made it so moving for me. That’s also what astonishes me about Marilynne Robinson’s writing – how is this character, this soul, only fictional? How does she write like that? How does anyone create something like this book?
One of my favourite things about Gilead is the way it describes the beauty of ordinary life:
“The sun had come up brilliantly after a heavy rain, and the trees were glistening and very wet. On some impulse, plain exuberance, I suppose, the fellow jumped up and caught hold of a branch, and a storm of luminous water came pouring down on the two of them, and they laughed and took off running, the girl sweeping water off her hair and her dress as if she were a little bit disgusted, but she wasn’t. It was a beautiful thing to see, like something from a myth. I don’t know why I thought of that now, except perhaps because it is easy to believe in such moments that water was made primarily for blessing, and only secondarily for growing vegetables or doing the wash. I wish I had paid more attention to it. My list of regrets may seem unusual, but who can know that they are, really. This is an interesting planet. It deserves all the attention you can give it.”
First G.K. Chesterton and now Marilynne Robinson – my eyes are being opened to the beauty of this life.
It’s possible I’m forgetting great classics and I’m sure many people might just say I haven’t read enough yet, but I don’t think I’ve ever read a more beautiful book.