When this book was chosen by the book club as the group read for April, I was eager to join the read-along for a number of reasons: 1) I already have a copy which I bought from Booksale, 2) a very good friend whose book reviews I avidly am a fan of has high praises about it, 3) this will be my second attempt to read a Marilynne Robinson — the first one was Housekeeping which I ditched after a few chapters — but I am willing to give myself another chance to appreciate the work of this acclaimed author, and 4) it’s a Pulitzer winner and I have been trying to read intelligent books once in a while.
Gilead is a narrative of an aging parson, Reverend John Ames, who is dying of a heart ailment in a small and secluded town of Gilead, Iowa. Reverend Ames wants to write a letter addressed to his young son (whose name has escaped me at the time of this writing, or is he really named?) in order to tell him about his “begats”. When I read this term “begats”, what immediately came to mind was the enumeration of the genealogy of Jesus Christ in Matthew Chapter 1 (i.e. Abraham begat Isaac; and Isaac begat Jacob; and Jacob begat Judas.) Although Reverend Ames tried to talk about his roots to his son, he was only able to reach as far as his grandfather, who, just like his father, was also a preacher. What Reverend Ames actually did in writing to his son this lengthy discourse is to provide an interesting account of his life and his experiences, mostly about his experiences with his father and grandfather, and people close to him such as his wife, his mother, his brother Edward, his friend Boughton, and the young John Ames Boughton.
The book is divided into paragraphs, not chapters, and there were instances when I thought that the plot is getting nowhere, and that had made me impatient and bored. The topics were varied and kept jumping from one subject to another and I was thinking, Where is this heading to? I read it simultaneously with Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, which is a chunkster of a book about magic full of plot twists and turns, and I was thinking that Gilead would be page-turner too. I was very wrong in expecting Gilead to be a plot-driven book because I learned that in order to fully appreciate the beauty of this Pulitzer winner, I must savor each and every page, each and every word, each and every nuance of the prose. One cannot just hurry along and expect some hair-standing, chest-thumping suspense every turn of the page (although I must say that there are interesting turns in the plot especially towards the end) because if one were to do so, he might probably miss out on a very wonderful reading experience. Indeed, this book is not for the impatient and the inattentive because this is a narrative of an elderly minister — a person who has probably seen how it is to live in this world and has already developed an unhurried attitude towards life.
Gilead is a deeply melancholic book. I can feel the mix of joy, love, sadness, longing, and regret jump at me in every sentence that Reverend Ames writes and every time I attempt to re-read it, the melancholy feeling becomes even more poignant that I can’t help but be teary-eyed at times. Yes, Gilead is a book worth re-reading.
Reading Gilead has actually made me aware what it means to revel in my own existence, to appreciate both the beauty and flaws of my own human-ness.
“All that is fine, but it’s your existence I love you for, mainly. Existence seems to me now the most remarkable thing that could ever be imagined.” (p.53)
And love. This is one of the most touching themes in the book that I love. Love of a father towards his wife, his son, his father, his family, even his enemy.
“There is no justice in love, no proportion in it, and there need not be, because in any specific instance it is only a glimpse or parable of an embracing incomprehensible reality. It makes no sense at all because it is the eternal breaking in on the temporal. So how could it subordinate itself to cause or consequence?” (p. 258)
Since the narrative is spoken by a Congregationalist minister, it cannot be avoided that there will be theological and doctrinal issues mentioned. However, since I do not trust the soundness of my own theology, I think I am not the best person to delve on such topics. I am not aware of the religious background of Marilynne Robinson but I just want to say that I appreciate the way the author dealt with some doctrinal issues such as communion, baptism, and the life after death with sufficient sensitivity and practical relevance, without the least sounding too preachy. And to think that the main character is a preacher at that.
EDITED TO ADD: A lot of times while reading Gilead made me long to talk with my grandparents (who are long dead) again. I still remember the time whene my siblings and I were kids, we would gather around my grandmother and listen to her stories, both real-life stories and fictional. We were so fascinated then. How glorious it would be to talk with lola again at this stage of my life — sharing with her my own experiences and sentiments and asking for her godly and practical advice about life an relationships. There really is nothing that can compare to the wisdom of old age.
A good friend at the book club described this book as beautiful. And I agree with her. Indeed, there is nothing more apt than to say that Gilead is beautiful.
My copy: paperback from Booksale