‘I don’t know how many times people have asked me what death is like, sometimes when they were only an hour or two from finding out for themselves. Even when I was a very young man, people as old as I am now would ask me, hold on to my hands and look into my eyes with their old milky eyes, as if they knew I knew and they were going to make me tell them. I used to say it was like going home’.
Gilead, Marilynne Robinson, Pg.4
Like most of the books I have sitting on my shelf, Gilead has been on my ‘to be read’ pile for a very long time. I have wanted to read more of Marilynne Robinson since I studied her first novel, Housekeeping, in my second year of university. She has such a keen eye for detail and observation, and explores the idea of home, not only as a concrete place of residence but as a spiritual essence, so wondrously that I cannot help but feel an affinity towards her work. In Gilead, Robinson shifts perspective to a religiously spiritual and Christian view of home and belonging, yet, despite my almost non-existent religious beliefs, the letter Reverend John Ames writes to his young son before his death is such a balanced and awe-inspiring piece of fictional writing that it is difficult not to feel moved.
Ames is an elderly man who has been given a second chance in life at a family. His first wife and child died tragically in childbirth and it was only when he was in his late sixties that he re-married, to a woman much younger than himself. The novel is written in the form of a long, disjointed letter to Ames’s seven-year-old son, so is in the second person perspective. This has the effect of directness – as if Reverend John Ames is speaking directly to the reader. I found this style, and the jumping of the narrative as Ames remembers certain aspects of his life that he wants his son to remember, at first quite difficult to get into. It’s not often that I read books narrated in the second person, but Marilynne Robinson writes so convincingly that I fell in love with the character of Ames. His father and grandfather were both reverends before him in the small town of Gilead, however, Ames does not go into this vocation lightly. As the sibling of a brother who has completely turned away from the faith, he understands what it means to find your own way in life – your own set of beliefs. He has read all the literature that turned his older brother away from religion (and subsequently his father, too), but he has made his own informed decisions. That is why he still follows the vocation of God.
‘So my advice is this – don’t look for proofs. Don’t bother with them at all. They are never sufficient to the question, and they’re always a little impertinent, I think, because they claim for God a place within our conceptual grasp. And they will likely sound wrong to you even if you convince someone else with them. That is very unsettling over the long term. ‘Let your works so shine before men’, etc. It was Coleridge who said Christianity is a life, not a doctrine, words to that effect. I’m not saying never doubt or question. The Lord gave you a mind so that you would make honest use of it. I’m saying you must be sure that the doubts and questions are your own, not, so to speak, the mustache and walking stick that happen to be the fashion of any particular moment’.
Gilead, Marilynne Robinson, Pg.204
Gilead is a very slow, thought-provoking novel which spans almost four generations of men in small-town America. As Ali Smith in her review on the Guardian website states: ‘in Gilead, Robinson is addressing the plight of serious people with a calm-eyed reminder of the liberal philosophical and religious traditions of a nation whose small towns “were once the bold ramparts meant to shelter peace”, citing a tradition of intellectual discursiveness and a historical cycle that shifts from radical to conservative then back to radical again’. From Ames’ grandfather’s abolitionist principles to Ames’ own anti-war sentiments during the First World War, the novel doesn’t just cover a wide span of years but condenses these events so that from the perspective of where we, the reader and John Ames’ son are standing, these events seem incredibly close. And as Ames reminds himself, wars will most definitely continue to take place in his son’s lifetime – that he is certain of. Though whether they are justified, that is up to the individual to decide.
The more I read of Marilynne Robinson, the more I love her writing and know that I will come back to her books again and again. It is a shame that she has only written three books of fiction so far, over the span of 34 years, but perhaps Robinson was only able to produce such beautiful novels by taking her time with them. They are precious and fragile, just like the human condition she writes about.