Gilead by Marilynne Robinson

When someone you really admire gushes about an author and their work, one is inclined to take notice. When that person offers an articulate critical appraisal from memory about a piece of fiction from 2004 – well, I had to set the weekend aside for it. That novel was Gilead by Marilynne Robinson.

Marilynne Summers Robinson (born 1943) ( is an American novelist and essayist. During her writing career she has received numerous awards, including the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2005, the 2012 National Humanities Medal, and the 2016 Library of Congress Prize for American Fiction.

The narrative of Gilead is a single, continuing, albeit episodic, document, written on several occasions in forms of journal and memoire. It comprises the fictional autobiography of 76 year old Reverend John Ames, Congregationalist pastor in the small, secluded town of Gilead, Iowa. Ames knows that he is dying of a heart condition. The date is established as 1956, and Ames explains that he is writing an account of his life for his seven-year-old son, who is going to have few memories of him.

Reverend Ames writes about the tension between his own father – an ardent pacifist – and his grandfather, whose pistol and bloody shirts, concealed in an army blanket, may be relics from the fight between the abolitionists and those settlers who wanted to vote Kansas into the union as a slave state. He tells a story of the sacred bonds between fathers and sons, which are tested in his tender and strained relationship with his namesake, John Ames Boughton, his best friend’s wayward son.

This is also the tale of another remarkable vision – not a corporeal vision of God but the vision of life as a wondrously strange creation. It tells how wisdom was forged in Ames’s soul during his solitary life, and how history lives through generations, pervasively present even when betrayed and forgotten. It is also a novel of masterful prose style and detailed mature observation of life. Many of the pre-occupations are spiritual but not obtrusively so. Robinson, who loves Melville and Emerson, skilfully employs the religious habit of using metaphor as a form of revelation. Ames spends much time musing on the question of what heaven will be like. Surely, he thinks, it will be a changed place, yet one in which we can still remember our life on earth: ”In eternity this world will be Troy, I believe, and all that has passed here will be the epic of the universe, the ballad they sing in the streets.” There is a strong echo of Melville here. As the novel progresses, its language becomes sparer, lovelier, more deeply infused with Ames’s yearning metaphysics. What is important is that the considerations about grace, forgiveness and redemption can apply to any reader equipped to understand them.

It wasn’t a wasted weekend.

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288 pages in Virago

First published 2004

ISBN  978-1844081486

Marilynne Robinson

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