Every now and then I come across a book that lifts me out of the stratosphere. A book that I instantly love and know I will read again and again. When I get one of those, I’ll be posting a review (and there are a few in my back catalogue that will get a mention too.) So first up is a recent read and a new birthday acquisition…
“Gilead” by Marilynne Robinson.
It was Nick Hornby’s wonderful collection of essays on reading, The Complete Polysyllabic Spree that alerted me to this novel. I thought a book that inspired a complete atheist to joke that it made him want to leave his partner and family for the priesthood must be quite something.It went straight onto my to-read list. Since then I’ve discovered several people who highly recommend it, and a couple of weeks ago,I was finally able to lay my hands on a copy.
It’s always a bit nerve-wracking when a novel has been hyped as much as Gilead in case it doesn’t live up to the expectation. I needn’t have worried – this really is a modern classic. It tells the story of the Reverend John Ames, a preacher in Iowa, who is dying. He is writing a letter to his 7 year old son, passing on all the stories and reflections he’ll never get to tell him in life. So we are treated to a long love letter describing family history, personal friendships and life as a small town preacher. That sounds very mundane, except this one manages to incorporate reflections on grace, forgiveness, reconciliation, pacifism, war, slavery, the meaning of life, the meaning of God, love, friendship, living ordinarily, the nature of fathers and sons. We hear about Ames’ father the pacifist preacher, and his grandfather, the war wounded bellicose preacher who delivers sermons whilst packing a pistol. We learn about Ames’ life long friendship with Boughton, a fellow minister, who is also dying, the death of Ames’ first wife, and his late and happy re-marriage.And as the book proceeds, we discover Ames struggling to welcome home Boughton’s wastrel son who may or may not have changed for the better.
Throughout these stories Robinson does something extraordinary, that I am not quite sure I have ever seen in fiction before. She presents us with a character who is truly holy and good, yet at the same time exhibits fallibilities – such as his lack of tolerance of the young Jack Boughton, his jealousy that Jack gets on well with his wife. It is done so subtly that as Ames never comes across as sanctimonious or unbelievable, but as a rounded human being with weaknesses just like the rest of us. When I finished the novel, I felt I had been in the company of a very wise old friend, one who I’d love to visit again and again. That’s quite an achievement.
The other quality Robinson brings to novel-writing is her command of prose. Her writing is luminous. She doesn’t waste a word, and is able to conjure up emotions and physical settings that linger long after the book is finished. The story of the young Ames and his father looking for their grandfather’s grave in the dustbowl of Kansas ends with the pair of them praying in a bedraggled graveyard. The boy opens his eyes and sees the sun and moon hanging at equidistant points in the sky, transforming the landscape to a place of beauty and transforming their experience accordingly. In another section, Ames visits Boughton, and remembers breaking into his bedroom as a boy so they could go and play. The juxtaposition of this youthful memory with two old men near death, is beautifully controlled and incredibly moving.
I can’t recommend this book highly enough. A lovely, slow read that purports to be about one tiny little American town, but takes you much further than that. A deserved Pullitzer winner and a great introduction to a wonderful writer. I’m off on my holidays this weekend, with all three of her books (the other two being Housekeeping and Home) in my bag. If you’re looking to discover a new author this summer, I’d suggest you do the same.