During this lockdown the Book Club has been reading “Gilead” by Marilyn Robinson, published in 2004 and winner of the Pulitzer Prize 2005, often on lists of best or most influential books.
I think that Barack Obama gives one of the most succinct summaries in his interview with the author for New York Review of books (2015) ‘One of my favourite characters in fiction is a pastor in Gilead , Iowa, named John Ames, who is gracious and courtly and a little bit confused about how to reconcile his faith with all the various travails that his family goes through. And I just fell in love with the book.’
It takes the form of a journal and memoir, as written in 1956 and is addressed to the narrator’s seven- year- old son. John Ames is 76, ill with angina and wishes to leave something of himself to his son. He has led a lonely life: his wife and baby daughter having died many years ago. In old age he married a young woman, a wanderer of little education but has wisdom and sensitivity. Some of the loveliest passages in the book are as Ames watches his young son and his wife together.
Ames’s father and grandfather were also pastors. His fanatical grandfather followed the abolitionist John Brown, urging his congregation to fight the cause, dressed in a bloodstained shirt and carrying a sword. His father eventually became a pacifist and quarrelled with the grandfather but made an arduous and dangerous quest with the young John Ames into the arid land of Kansas to find his father’s grave. Ames’s observation of life around him continually remind him of his childhood and what happened in the past in a rich weaving of past and present.
The novel is not only about the past, however. Ames still has moral conflicts to solve, as his namesake Jack Broughton returns home to his father, Ames’s best friend, as the prodigal son. As a young man Jack had led a dissolute life, fathering and abandoning a child and now he seeks answers and hope which the two friends are unable to give him. Finally Ames is able to forgive and bless Jack as, like Lear, he moves towards his final rest.
The novel stands outside time – Ames is an old-fashioned Republican. He appears to ignore issues which his grandfather fought for, such as the evil of segregation and the civil rights movement: the burning of the black church is hardly mentioned. Yet these issues lurk behind the story.
Yet this is a reflective, subtle novel. Ames is telling stories to his son but these are not straightforward, he continually wanders from the point returning to the story later in the book. Thus we learn about his grandfather gradually through hints and references. This way of storytelling gives a rich patterning to the text and Marilyn Robinson teaches us how to read her novel.
What also makes this novel so satisfying is the sheer beauty of the description. Ames says that there is more beauty in the everyday world than our eyes can bear. He writes about homely things – children’s games, family meals, the evening light, the feel of a baby’s hand on his cheek as he baptises it. There is an intensity about his descriptions that give the book a lyrical quality. There is humour here also – he tells of the women bringing in the harvest and their long hair tumbling free of their pins and comments ruefully that nowadays they would all have blue rinses.
Robinson is a Christian writer and the book centres on Ames’s theological struggles with issues in his life. Such struggles are illustrated by numerous quotes from the Bible, from theologians such as Tillich and Bonhoeffer but especially Calvin as well as the atheist philosopher Feuerbach whom Ames greatly respects. Don’t let this put you off however, while these references and discussions enhance the book for those well-versed in the scriptures and enjoying theological debate, there is a wisdom and breadth of vision to appeal to the most secular of readers. It is one of the great American novels and perhaps one of the most worthwhile ones we have read together. Written with the intensity of a man soon to die and treasuring every moment of his life and with the underlying theme of redemption, forgiveness and self-knowledge, it is truly a book to be savoured. One of the Book club members referred to it as ‘the lovely Gilead’.