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