In the town of Gilead, Iowa, an old man is bearing his soul. His heart failing, Reverend John Ames addresses a letter to his young son, recounting the history of his God-haunted life. Weaving together past and present, the reverend’s sprawling letter takes on the form of a novel. And what a novel it is. With the critically acclaimed, “Housekeeping,” Marilynne Robinson established herself as a major American writer. More than 20 years have passed since “Housekeeping’s” publication, but time has done nothing to diminish Robinson’s extraordinary talents. It is hardly a surprise that “Gilead,” Robinson’s magnificent and long-awaited second novel, succeeds on so many levels.
As in “Housekeeping,” Robinson gives readers an American portrait steeped in myth. Central to this portrait is the narrator’s grandfather, an abolitionist who went west to Kansas after a vision of Jesus in chains. From these reactionary roots, Ames traces his family’s religious shift to pacifism in the years following the Civil War. In the process, he chronicles nearly a century of American history, describing a nation wrought by racial and religious tensions.
Division, as a theme, is ever-present in “Gilead,” and nowhere is this truer than in the case of the narrator. In giving thanks for the “miracle” of his late marriage and young child, Ames must first reflect on the solitude of his midlife. Through his reflection, readers are allowed a rich portrait of a lonely man bent on preaching God’s goodness. Though “Gilead” is rich with biblical imagery, Ames’s earthy, conversational style avoids preachiness. Throughout the novel, Robinson’s prose shines through, dazzling the reader one sentence at a time.
Structurally, Robinson works wonders. Ames’s entries are never dated, making for an unaccountable passing of time between the letter’s beginning and end. Such a technique allows the narrative a meditative quality that faithfully recreates the ponderings of the human mind. Ames leaves some stories unfinished, only to return to them pages later. Beneath this guise of individual reflection, however, is the structural authority of a master craftsman. Robinson’s pacing never falters and makes for a beautifully satisfying narrative arc.
At its heart, “Gilead” explores what it is to be a father and a son. Though named for his grandfather, John Ames has a namesake of his own in John Ames Boughton, the favored, yet troubled son of a lifelong friend. Young Boughton returns home and becomes the central point of Ames’s ruminations as the novel progresses. Through the act of confronting a man whose name is his own but whose personal history appalls him, Ames must come to grips with what it means to forgive without forgetting.
In this sense, “Gilead” is a book about the making of memory just as it is a book about love or God. But to pigeonhole such an all-encompassing work with any one of these thematic labels would be to miss the heart of Robinson’s achievement. Marilynne Robinson’s novel is an exploration of what it means to be human, and her authorial grace seems nearly limitless. “Gilead” is the very definition of a masterpiece, a novel of singular heart and intelligence — in short, a revelation.
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars