Gilead by Marilynne Robinson

John Ames is a pastor in the forsaken town of Gilead. Ames, after losing his first wife and child to a difficult labour, has remarried late in life to a much younger woman and so at the ripe old age of seventy six has a very young son who he realises he will not see grow to manhood. So at the end of his life he is writing what he believes to be a kind of epistle to the beauty of God’s world for his young son. He is attempting to bestow grace on his son. He gives him advice – “I would advise you against defensiveness on principle. It precludes the best eventualities along with the worst.” The father-son (and Holy Ghost) relationship is very much at the heart of this novel’s traction. The first half of the novel has a languid old world pace, brimming with tenderness and somewhat idealised musings on the beauty of life (the world appears glorious in the light of Ames’ imminent departure from it) and on family and the town of Gilead’s history. “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.” Reading the languorous gentle lilt of Robinson’s prose is like being up in a tree house with the huge night sky spiralling its stars overhead, and like the stars the text raises both wonder and elementary doubts. Ames creates a tapestry of all the things that have formed him. Except there’s a sense of selective memory playing a big part. Ames, understandably, wants to paint a flattering portrait of himself. About half way through I was almost beginning to run out of patience with his benevolent tender self-serving musings, wondering where the novel was going. Then Jack Boughton arrives on the scene and the novel acquires all the contrast and tension it was beginning to lack. Jack is the wayward son of his best friend. As a teenager he stole from Ames, deliberately seeking to antagonise him. Ames doesn’t like him. He especially doesn’t like him when he begins playing with his boy and talking to his wife. All of a sudden Ames begins to appear less than Christian, shadowed and soured by envy and resentment. Jack is a kind of shadow self, an alter-ego with whom Ames has to reconcile and the second half of this novel is a moving account of his struggle to find the necessary forgiveness within himself to bring about this reconciliation.

What Gilead lacks in momentum and dramatic tension is more than compensated for by the life affirming wisdom it contains in such generous measure.Marilynne-Robinson-001

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