I wish I could do justice to the book I just read, Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead. The first time I read it, I threw it aside after about twenty pages: I was in India at the time, and needed something plot-driven to pull me in and away from my hotel room. When evaluated in terms of plot the book is a definite damp squib. A couple of weeks ago I picked it up again – partly because the cover is so beautiful, an pale cross mounted on ageing, olive-stained wood, and partly because I read somewhere that Marilynne Robinson is the greatest prose writer alive today, and I was curious to see what I’d missed.
I always thought the greatest prose writer alive today would dazzle the reader with literary fireworks, using a style that was thrilling and showy in equal parts. This prose is quiet and measured; it appears unremarkable when read in a hurry, looking ahead for the next incident. It needs to be appreciated slowly, in an untroubled frame of mind – which made it completely unsuitable for an Indian hotel room, of course.
It’s the story of a 76-year-old preacher in the tiny Iowan town of Gilead, Reverend John Ames. He has a heart condition that will shorten his life, and begins to write a letter to his 7-year-old son, to be read in the adulthood he believes he will not live to see. He remembers his grandfather, a ‘wild-haired, one-eyed, scrawny old fellow with a crooked beard, like a paintbrush left to dry with lacquer in it’, who fought for the abolitionists in his youth, and in an inflexible old age stole clothes off the washing lines to give to the poor and had conversations with the Lord in the parlour. The narrator’s father, in turn, is a pacifist, so distressed by his father’s habit of preaching with a pistol in his belt that he briefly defects to the Quaker church round the corner. Ames himself tries to evaluate the effect of fathers upon sons, his grandfather upon his father, and his father upon himself, concluding ‘We live in the ruins of the lives of other generations’.
In the middle of this reflection, Ames’ own surrogate son, the profligate offspring of his best friend, comes back to the town he left in disgrace several decades before. Much of the second half of the book concerns Ames’ attempts to reconnect with Jack Boughton, weighing up the necessity to reveal Boughton’s unsavoury past against his own conflicting feelings of love and guilt. ‘A man can know his father, or his son,’ he reflects early in the novel, ‘and there might still be nothing between them but loyalty and love and mutual incomprehension’. I don’t think it spoils the story too much to say that when Jack Boughton confesses the reason he has returned to Gilead, the revelation is both unexpected and completely appropriate, allowing Robinson very delicately to reinforce the thread of social and racial upheaval as well as the complex ties between father and son, and the author’s redemptive vision of Creation as a whole: ‘The Lord loves each of us as an only child, and that has to be true. “He will wipe the tears from all faces”. It takes nothing from the loveliness of the verse to say that is exactly what will be required’.
Loveliest of all is the way Robinson can transform the most ordinary moments to brilliant, transcendent beauty. Listen to this:
‘I have lived my life on the prairie and a line of oak trees can still astonish me…I know this is all mere apparition compared to what awaits us, but it is only lovelier for that…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. 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’.
How does the woman do it?! You only realise how much dazzling passages like this have affected you when you remember them, several days later, and feel an inexplicable lump in your throat. The narration may be rambling, even tedious in places, but the intense and moving feeling behind the book leaves an indelible mark.
And I see I haven’t done justice to Gilead at all. I didn’t really expect to – it’s not the kind of book that responds well to summary. Go away and read it in the quiet, and see what it does to you. This kind of beauty in prose doesn’t happen very often, and everyone ought to experience it at least once.