At its simplest, Gilead is an old man’s love letter to his young son. At its deepest, the novel is a moving and melodic elegy for the quiet night of the soul. It is sad. It is soft. I liked it a lot. I have a tendency to gravitate toward books heavy on the internal reflection (Woolf, Proust anyone?) and Marilynne Robinson certainly delivers in this respect.
The jacket for my copy describes the Reverend John Ames’s life as a “God-haunted existence.” I think this an apt phrase for the protagonist and narrator, who comes from a long line of fervent and religious men. He writes as a 77-year-old man to his very young son.
The letter hinges quite a bit on the fact that when one is old, one will still wrestle with one’s central beliefs–perhaps especially if one is a preacher. It was somehow relieving to me to read about this wise, old minister who still talked to God and still had lots of questions for him. For example, how does one really forgive someone? And must we? Always? Why is it that our defenses of our deepest held beliefs sound trite and foolish when explained to someone else who does not share them?
Robinson inhabits the voice of John Ames very convincingly, which is itself a great accomplishment, as she is neither male nor about to die nor a Congregationalist minister living in Iowa in the late 1950s. Some popular novelists bank on the trope of creating narrators who are thinly disguised versions of themselves (Gary Shteyngart, Junot Diaz, and Jonathan Safran Foer come to mind); Robinson shirks that easy way out and instead picks a character who is as unlike her as possible. And, boy, does she pull it off.
I think it helps that Robinson herself is a converted Congregationalist and has preached at her local church several times. Her knowledge of scripture and time-honored Protestant theological debacles is impressive. She knows enough about Protestant Christianity to sound like a very believable 77-year-old preacher. John Ames’s internal battles are still being waged and yet we trust and rely on him as our credible and wise narrator.
A large part of the novel, to me, is about the sadness of growing old. It’s sad for everyone, but especially for John Ames, who has a much younger wife and child. The intensity with which he watches them, strives to remember them is touching. Reading his long letter to his son made me want to take better care of my memory and my limited attempts to record the people who are dear to me. Thus motivated by John Ames, I started writing small vignettes and stories about my relatives. Some day, these little stories will be infinitely more valuable to me than they are now–and this is the truth at the heart of Gilead.