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Book Review: Gilead by Marilynne Robinson

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This book has received many plaudits: winner of the 2005 Pulitzer Prize; stated “A masterpiece” by the Sunday Times and “A visionary work of dazzling originality” by Robert McCrum of the Observer. These all grace the cover of my paperback.

I was excited in anticipation of reading it, expecting to be touched and moved at every new paragraph, my emotion brimming uncontrollably at the exceptional writing of the author, clear and elucidating at every page turn.

Imagine my disappointment when it never happened. Not once.

All the elements are there. Our narrator, John Ames, is an elderly preacher who has a young son who he knows he will not see grow into adulthood. In anticipation of this, he has chosen to write his musings and memories in order for his boy to capture the essence of his father as his presence will be taken away. Very touching and, yet, I remained untouched.

And so we learn about John Ames’ relationship with his own father and the discord between his brother, Frank, and his father. Ames stretches further back and discusses the details of his grandfather’s life; a formidable man, who fought in wars and protected fugitives–and was also a preacher.

One of the most interesting narrative threads in the book is where Ames recounts the journey he took as a boy with his father in search of his grandfather’s grave, a hard task of endurance at times but a shared experience that bonded father and son forever.

There is some discussion on religion and the nature of faith by Ames which, in light of his brother’s atheism is mildly interesting at most.

As the narrative is told in the first person, there is very limited writing devoted to our narrator’s interaction with others. When Robinson does choose to do this, it is used to demonstrate the tensions that John Ames feels in his relationship with his namesake, John Ames Boughton, the son of a dear friend named after our narrator when it seemed as if a suitable wife would never appear and therefore produce no offspring.

Robinson concentrates on the difficulties in the understanding between the older and younger man. Jack Boughton, as he is known, was always a little wayward and met with Ames’ disapproval. Ames struggles to find an equilibrium with him where he no longer judges Jack’s decisions in life, some of which have been controversial and liable to upset the familial harmony.

A resolution of some sort is reached by the end of the book and the secret of Jack’s life which has been tantalizingly mentioned throughout with little exemplification is finally revealed. And perhaps this is the point of the book: that writing what is ostensibly a link to his son’s heritage, the placing of this history and these thoughts into words has provided a sort of catharsis which would never have been possible otherwise. Ames comes to terms with his imminent death, leaving his son and wife and his troubled relations with Jack Boughton.

There is no denying that Marilynne Robinson is a proficient writer. I did not struggle to read this book in terms of the description and the creation of her character. I just found it a bit dull. So, if you like books where not a great deal happens, but the evocation of a character and their inner thoughts and perceptions–a real character study–enthralls you, then this book provides that. However, if you prefer more dialogue and a faster-paced plot with a wide variety of characters, then this book is to be avoided.

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About Rachel Deeming