Gilead by Marilynne Robinson

Goodness me, what a treasure this book is. I’m struggling to find the words to describe it, so magnificent, so powerful, so moving, it is. It is a one of a kind experience, full of richness, beauty, and rare insight into the truly wonderful nature of humanity. In short, it is stunning; a piece of writing that I have not seen the like of before, and doubt I will again. Set in the barren plains of Iowa in the mid 1950s, Gilead is the history of John Ames, a 76 year old preacher dying of heart disease, who is writing the story of his life, spent mainly in the small, forgotten town of Gilead, for the benefit of the seven year old son he won’t live to see grow up. Weaving the history of John himself with that of his father and grandfather, bitterly opposed yet deeply loving fellow preachers; one a militant abolitionist, the other a fierce pacifist, as well as that of his best friend, Boughton, and his prodigal, difficult, maddening son John Ames Boughton, it is a poignant, perceptive, and profound exploration of the human heart and of the relationship between parents and children. Ames’ voice is kind, gentle, honest, wise; filled with childlike wonder at the beauty of life, despite the many sorrows it has brought him. His passionate, possessive love for his wife and child, his deeply felt sadness at leaving them behind…I wanted to cry at the beauty of it.

What touched me the most about the book was John Ames’ honesty, about the fear, jealousy, and anger he experiences, and his thankfulness, his joy, his sheer pleasure, in the experience of life. Every day is a gift to be treasured; every minute of life, no matter how simple, is something to be savoured. From the taste of fried eggs to the ability to finally forgive the prodigal son of his best friend, each experience has a weight of beauty, of grace. As would befit a book about a preacher, it is a deeply religious book, and the insights Robinson has into the Christian life, into man’s relationship with God, and vice versa, and into the Biblical concepts of love, forgiveness, grace and joy, are truly magnificent, and thought provoking. However, you do not need to be a Christian to enjoy this book; its religiosity is not overwhelming, and nor does it seek to convert or preach.

Marilynne Robinson’s use of language is exquisite. Such divine prose is a rarity, and a treat to read. So many times throughout the reading experience, I was arrested by lines so dazzling that I was overwhelmed at their profundity. Lines such as:

“I do not remember grief and loneliness, so much as I do peace and comfort – grief, but never without comfort, loneliness, but never without peace.”

and

“There are a thousand thousand reasons to live this life, every one of them sufficient.”

and

“I feel sometimes as if I were a child who opens its eyes on the world once and sees amazing things it will never know any names for and then has to close its eyes again. I know this is all mere apparition compared to what awaits us, but it is only lovelier for that. There is a human beauty in it. And I can’t believe that, when we have all been changed and put on incorruptibility, we will forget our fantastic condition of mortality and impermanence, the great bright dream of procreating and perishing that meant the whole world to us.”

For the first time since starting this blog, I feel truly unable to adequately ‘review’ or describe or talk about how fantastic this book is. It’s one of those books that changes the way you think about everything. It opened my eyes to so many aspects of faith I had never considered before; it changed my perspective on the true meaning of the story of the Prodigal Son, and it reminded me that, despite all of the pain and disappointment and struggle that life sometimes is, that the essential beauty, wonder and magnificence of this world, and all that we are able to experience within it, should never be forgotten, or taken for granted. John Ames’ love of God fuels his love of life, and his love of life fuels his love of God; it has been a simple existence, mostly lived on the plains, and mostly lived alone, but sustained by the God that suffuses everything he thinks and sees and does and loves, John Ames has developed a wisdom, a contentment, and a depth of love that makes him one of the most beautiful characters I have come across in fiction.

Please, please, if you haven’t already, read this. There is so much in it to savour; so many wonderful characters, so many fascinating, moving, interwoven stories, so many brilliant insights, so many beautiful phrases; far too much to detail in a brief review like this. Gilead has rocketed onto my list of favourite books of all time, and, do you know what? I’m going to go straight back to the beginning and read it all over again. Yes; it really is that magnificent. Then I shall read the companion book, Home. Nothing I have read has had quite this effect on me before. I have been charmed, I have been delighted, I have been enthralled; but this did something else entirely. It truly enriched my soul, and opened my eyes to the sacred beauty of this world, and this life. It is remarkable. Read it.

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58 comments

  1. I will do as directed and read this. How could I not after this passionate review? I’d see Gilead mentioned around before but had never felt much interest. Now you’ve made me desperate to find a copy and start reading. Enjoy your re-read!

  2. Rachel, you say it so well. I also have not read before or since a book as kind and tender as this. I am quite afraid to read Home for the fact that it might taint Gilead. Then again, I’d really love to read more Robinson, please. Happy happy new year! Good to see you are loving NY.. :)

    1. Thank you, Claire. Kind and tender are perfect words to describe it, and I am loving reentering the world of Gilead through Home – you must read it. Thank you – Happy New Year to you too!

  3. This has to be the most poignant and urgent review of a book I’ve ever read, Rachel. Your passion and exhilaration over Gilead is contagious and I must be on the lookout for Robinson’s book. I have a duplicate book I was gifted from Christmas – this would be a perfect replacement.

    Here’s hoping your settled in after your harrowing ride through the blizzard and to a happy new year!

    1. Thank you Penny – what a lovely comment! I think you would find much to relish and savour in this, Penny. It’s quiet beauty is just your cup of tea. Please read it!

      Thank you, I am – ready for a new year of fun!

  4. Wow, I have a copy sitting in my bookcase right now. Your review is compelling me to find it and add it as my next book in the TBR! Have a Happy New York New Year!

  5. I am so happy to hear that you loved this. It’s in my top 5 of all time, and I loved Home nearly as much. I have Housekeeping near the top of my TBR stack and fully intend to get to it this year. Robinson’s prose and her insights are so exquisite.

    1. I thought that perhaps this would be a favourite of yours, Teresa – I’m glad I was right! I am loving Home and now I am anxious to read Housekeeping too. I have never come across such sparse, beautiful, meaningful prose before. Such a treat!

  6. I read this one quite a while ago now and remember loving it too. I was going to buy Home this week but I feel I need to re-read this one first to get back into the story. Thanks for reminding me of such a wonderful book!

    1. Yes I think going into Home straight after reading Gilead has really enriched my experience of the book – I’m not sure you can go in cold and get the same effect. You are welcome – I hope you can reread it soon!

  7. A copy has been sitting in my bookpile for months but I’ve avoided reading it because I don’t want to cry (I blub very easily these days and, given the circumstances of the main character, surely I would be bound to?). Anyway, your review has made me reconsider and I may just have to take a deep breath and plunge in.

    1. Well, sometimes a little sob doesn’t do you any harm!! I felt teary in places but I like being moved by what I read…I think, for Gilead, being made to cry is totally worth it. I hope you do pick it up soon!

  8. oh I’ve been waiting for this review… Wonderful. Reading your previous mention of Gilead made me go back to mine and re read the many turned down pages with great passages. I’ve planned a post with one of them soon. Regarding your thoughts on the Prodigal Son have you read Henri Nouwen’s The prodigal son? It’s a meditation on a (I think Rembrandt painting) focusing on the the three characters. A really reflective read. To an uplifting and life giving new year.

    1. Hi! This book is so you – so heartfelt and tender. I’m so glad you have already read it and found much within it to savour. I look forward to reading the passages you have picked out. I haven’t read the book you mention but I shall certainly look it up – it sounds superb. I wish you a fantastic new year as well!

  9. Oh, sweet serendipity! I have this on my table in my stack of books to read in January, so will now float it to the top. :) I read Housekeeping with Cornflower’s Book Group last month and have had this one sitting on my TBR shelf for a while. You’ve made it irresistible. Thanks for the review.

    1. Isn’t serendipity a wondrous thing! I am so glad my review has given you the push to read it – this really is not a book you can miss! Let me know how you find it please! :)

  10. What a wonderful review. This was one of my Top 5 for 2010, and it is difficult to do justice to in a review. You actually did quite well! Home made my 2009 Top 5 so I will add my voice to Teresa’s in recommending it to you.

    Happy New Year !

    1. Thank you Laura! Gilead is an incredibly difficult book to write about and I’m glad my passion for it managed to come across! I have just started reading Home and am loving it just as much as Gilead, though I do miss Ames’ voice.

      Happy New Year to you too!

  11. Oh my goodness! Your review will be a huge help when customers at the library ask if I know anything about this book.

    I absolutely love the feeling of wanting to turn back to the first page of a sublime read.

    Happy New Year, Rachel!

    1. Well I’m glad I can help you out, Darlene!! It’s such a pleasure to read a book that is so wonderful you don’t want to leave it!

      Thank you Darlene – I hope 2011 is spectacular for you!

  12. Oh Rachel, what an infectious review! I brought it home to read over Christmas, but didn’t get around to it – now I’ll make sue it’s one of the first books I read in 2011.

  13. I just got this book out of the library, Rachel, and it will be read shortly. After reading your review, I am very excited to pick it up.

      1. I just finished Gilead last night, Rachel, and I loved it. It is one of the best books I’ve ever read. Robinson really captured the voice of a Protestant minister, and the book held so much wisdom. It was an extremely Christian book, though, so I would be interested to hear what non-Christians think about it.
        Only one slight problem I had was with the inclusion of the prodigal son in the narrative. Especially at first, I thought that it seemed rather too obvious an inclusion since the relationship the prodigal son has with his father is the quintessential father/son relationship in the Gospels (besides God/Jesus), but as the book went on, Robinson had so many wise things to say about forgiveness and redemption in regards to it that I began to really like the inclusion. Plus, it did seem to tie in with the plot in the end. Regardless, if it is a flaw, it is an extremely minor one.
        Overall, I would highly recommend this book. It was a beautiful read.

    1. Virginia, I am so happy that you loved it! It really is a superb book, and it’s hard to express how superb it really is – you do just have to read it for yourself!

      Yes, I would be interested in the opinion of a non Christian as well. I found it very beautiful and insightful, but I’m not sure how someone who does not have a similar relationship with God would find it. Perhaps someone reading this can enlighten us?

      I was interested also by what you said about the prodigal son narrative – the fact that you found it didn’t gel. I didn’t find that at all, largely because I think Marilynn Robinson uses the story of Jack to show that Ames is not perfect, and that forgiveness, while freely given to us by God, is not as freely bestowed by humans, no matter how loving or Godly their hearts. Ames’ struggle to love and forgive gives him a realness that I don’t think he would have been such a compelling character without. Also, by introducing Jack, she made a way to bring in some truly superb insights into the nature of God and his relationship with his own errant children. I found that really powerful and some of the stuff she wrote made me look at my relationship with God in a totally new way. It blew me away. I am so glad you found it such a beautiful and uplifting read. I can highly recommend Home, as well – similarly exquisite and so rewarding.

      1. You are completely right about how she deals with the prodigal son. Maybe it didn’t seem to fit at first for me because it was introduced later on in the narrative, and I was expecting the book to be more about the Ames family. At the same time, I thought she dealt with it very well, and all the points you made are right on.

        I looked up Home today and noticed it was about the prodigal son but from John Ames Boughton’s perspective. I must have missed something, then, with Gilead; maybe the introductory material about the relationships between fathers and sons of the Ames family was supposed to lead into the relationship between Ames, the Godfather, and John Ames Boughton, the Godson. I will have to pick up Home soon.

        Thank you so much for the wonderful review.

      2. Hi Virginia – it was different to what I expected as well. Ames’ life was obviously so linked with Boughton’s that Jack’s story was actually one of the major features in it.

        Home is excellent, and much more about the nature of Boughton and Jack’s relationship, and also about family, and the myriad of ties that bind us all to each other. I am absolutely loving it, and am in no hurry to finish. I just can’t bear to be parted from Robinson’s writing. It is exquisite.

  14. Like Claire, I had read reviews of Gilead previously but not felt that I wanted to read it. Yours is a wonderful review & I have added the book to my wanted list immediately.
    So pleased your adventure in USA is proving so memorable. Enjoy the rest of it & happy 2011.

  15. Thanks for a beautiful review. I have this one lying around at home and I will definitely make sure that I read it soon. Thanks for recommending it and for sharing your feelings about it!

  16. I read this years ago and have since lost or lent my copy. After reading your review, though, I might have to go buy another, as I’m dying to re-read. Looking forward to hearing your thoughts on Home, too, which IS still on my shelf, as-yet unread.

    1. I hate it when that happens! I know Gilead will be a book I go back to again and again so I shall invest in a hardcover at some point. I am half way through Home now and it’s brilliant! You’ll want to read that too, once I’ve written about it!

  17. Just turned the last page, and had a little cry whilst at work (!) – one of the most beautiful, exquisite books I have ever read. Because so much of it is about the heart, the mind, and soul (rather than action, as it were) I fear it will slip from my memory – I will and must re-read it fairly often – but Ames’ voice will linger much longer. I must make sure I write about it before I forget too much, or how deeply I love it!

    1. Oh, Simon! Bless your heart! I am SO GLAD you loved it and had the same response as me. It is truly one of those books that grips your heart and stays with you…Ames’ voice is incredible, and so hard to leave behind. There is so much beauty and wisdom and love in this book…I just adore it. And Home, too. You must read that as well.

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