Monday, 7 September 2009

Gilead by Marilynne Robinson

Written as a long, rambling letter from a 76 year old pastor to his 7 year old son, Gilead is touching, subtle and sweet. It is sprinkled with gentle philosophy; as John Ames writes his son this sort of memoir-letter, he depicts tender family moments, the joy of parenthood, and the confusion and concrete beliefs of childhood.

As far as plot goes, there isn’t much. John Ames is old, and dying, we learn on the first page. His wife and son are much younger than him, and he writes so his son will have something to remember him by (other than the hundreds of dusty sermons that lie untouched since their delivery in his attic). Slowly paced, bit by bit, we learn about the town of Gilead, where they live. Ames tells of its history – how it is intermingled with his own family’s history – and its people; their minutiae and their skeletons. Ames is likeable and pitiable; a man that came to life too late, who wishes things had been different but knows that if they had, he wouldn’t have what he now has. He writes sometimes with the calm of a religious man, other times with the anger of one who knows his life will end and rages against his own mortality. The voice is distinct and the character well-shaped, for which I think Robinson deserves all the praise she got for this novel.

I enjoyed the rambling religious philosophising that occurred repeatedly, some of which was really very interesting and thought-provoking. However, overall I found Gilead lacking. Lacking in plot, in depth, in all-consuming fire. I like my books to eat me up from inside out, and I them, and this one was too gentle for my tastes. Perhaps it's just my atheism rearing its cynical head, but most of what Robinson wrote didn’t resonate with me. It’s a popular book that lots of people say touched them and moved them - but as for me, I closed the final page and just kind of …shrugged. Sweet, temperate and mild; not riveting, and not mind-blowing. A disappointment.

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