Has there ever been a more convincing review than Rachel’s post on Gilead by Marilynne Robinson? Seriously, schoolchildren should analyse it as a piece of persuasive writing. Even so, my reading demands and tbr piles meant it took a month or two before the copy I already owned (bought at a church fair in Middle Chinnock, Somerset) worked its way to the top of my pile. And thank goodness it did. Gilead has probably got the most perfectly rendered ‘voice’ of any novel I’ve ever read. Actually, before I go any further, I’m simply going to give you the opening paragraph:
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. I told you you might have a very different life from mine, and from the life you’ve had with me, and that would be a wonderful thing, there are many ways to live a good life. And you said, Mama already told me that. And then you said, Don’t laugh! because you thought I was laughing at you. You reached up and put your fingers on my lips and gave me that look I never in my life saw on any other face beside your mother’s. It’s a kind of furious pride, very passionate and stern. I’m always a little surprised to find my eyebrows unsinged after I’ve suffered one of those looks. I will miss them.
And so it begins. Gilead is in the form of one long letter, written in Iowa in 1956, from Reverend John Ames to his young son, for his son to read when he is an adult and Ames is dead. For Ames is a very old father, and one with a weak, dying heart. This letter is his attempt to put down all he would ever want to tell his son – stories; history; wisdom; love.
In the hands of a lesser writer, that would be a ruthlessly maudlin concept, but from that first paragraph onwards the reader is swept along by the gentle, lilting, genuine voice of Ames. His story starts with the histories of his father and grandfather – both, like him, clergymen, but with clashing ideals and tempestuous disagreements. He tells of his youthful memories of travelling with his father, to find the place his grandfather died. He tells of the pain his brother caused to the family, and of forgiveness. Throughout the letter he skips about with chronology – as we all do when thinking – and often returns to the events of present day. His son’s voice is rarely heard, but his actions are mentioned – with the deep affection of a father who waited long to become one:
I’d never have believed I’d see a wife of mine doting on a child of mine. It still amazes me every time I think of it. I’m writing this in part to tell you that if you ever wonder what you’ve done in your life, and everyone does wonder sooner or later, you have been God’s grace to me, a miracle, something more than a miracle. You may not remember me very well at all, and it may seem to you to be no great thing to have been the good child of an old man in a shabby little town you will no doubt leave behind. If only I had the words to tell you.For a long time, Gilead doesn’t seem to have much plot. It is a mark of a great author that they can captivate you solely with characters and words, rather than events – Robinson certainly does that. But when the reader has settled into assuming that little will unsettle the memories and emotions of an old man, he turns to his oldest friend Robert Broughton – and, more particularly, John (Jack) Ames Broughton. Ames’ namesake is Broughton’s prodigal son, who returns to Gilead after bringing disgrace on the family. The nature of his wrongdoing is held a mystery from the reader, as Ames debates whether or not it is right to disclose it to his son – and so Robinson artfully adds yet another reason to read on.
But that is not the main reason. What makes Gilead so compelling is Ames himself. His voice is gentle, wise, kind, and sad. He is desperate at the idea of losing the opportunity to watch his son grow up, but he is equally amazed that God has granted him a son at all. Wonder fills him so often. Ames writes lovingly of his wife, and deprecatingly of his own failings. He is unfailingly honest and thoughtful – an utterly, utterly good man, and an incredibly lovable one. If Robinson were not a 60 year old woman (when this was written), I’d have assumed it was autobiographical – so convincing and enveloping is the voice of the narration.
Gilead is also an inspiring book to read as a Christian. I am surprised that it has been so successful, since it is such a deeply faith-filled book. I wasn’t sure whether it would appeal to a non-Christian – for, to me, so much of the novel’s richness lies in its incredible depiction of the beauty and depth of a life lived for God – but it seems I was wrong. A reader I met who was affirmedly atheist said she loved Gilead nonetheless. Robinson certainly doesn’t preach, except by example, and I suspect the honesty and accuracy of Ames’ letter would appeal to anybody – although perhaps some of the Biblical allusions would be lost. I especially liked his reference to himself as ‘one of the righteous for whom the rejoicing in heaven will be comparatively restrained’ – a reference to Luke 15:7: ‘I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.’ If you’re not a Christian, please, please don’t let that put you off reading this beautiful novel – any lover of great writing will still love Gilead, I am sure.
I shan’t spoil the end of the novel, except to say that there is no real twist or change; just something simple, beautiful, and sad. I cried a tiny little bit, in the library, as I turned the final page. Gilead is truly one of the best pieces of writing I’ve ever encountered. Perhaps I shan’t remember all the details of the story, or the characters, but I doubt I’ll ever forget Ames, or the feeling of being submerged in his life and his words. It’s certainly a novel to which I will return – and it seems only fitting to leave you with his voice rather than my own, with another excerpt which touched me.
When you are an old man like I am, you might think of writing some sort of account of yourself, as I am doing. In my experience of it, age has a tendency to make one’s sense of oneself harder to maintain, less robust in some ways.
Why do I love the thought of you old? That first twinge of arthritis in your knee is a thing I imagine with all the tenderness I felt when you showed me your loose tooth. Be diligent in your prayers, old man. I hope you will have seen more of the world than I ever got around to seeing – only myself to blame. And I hope you will have read some of my books. And God bless your eyes, and your hearing also, and of course your heart. I wish I could help you carry the weight of many years. But the Lord will have that fatherly satisfaction.