Gilead by Marilynne Robinson

16/04/05, The Times

In an age of hysterical, media-manipulated overproduction, what does it say about a writer who has left a hiatus of twenty-three years, the approximate span of a generation, between her first and second novels? To read Marilynne Robinson’s second novel, Gilead, which has just been awarded the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, is to begin to understand where those years between Housekeeping in 1981 and Gilead went. It is a book of such meditative calm, such spiritual intensity that it seems miraculous her silence was only for twenty-three years; such measure of wisdom is the fruit of a lifetime.

Gilead is a deeply unfashionable novel. It’s a religious book with a Congregationalist pastor as its narrator; it’s set in the mid-west ‘Bible belt’, in Gilead, Iowa, ‘a dogged little outpost in the sand hills, within striking distance of Kansas’. It has no continuity or affiliations with anything in contemporary literature; rather, its forebears are Emerson and Thoreau, writers who aren’t exactly on the surface of most readers’ minds.  The closest I can think of any European writing that it shares any ground with would be that of George Herbert and John Donne. It is religious in similar ways: a deep faith subsuming and illuminating every single action and perception, a life ringed around and pervaded with the expectation of a greater, more permanent reality to come.

Set in 1956, it tells the story of Reverend John Ames, now seventy-seven and diagnosed with angina pectoris, who sits down to leave a written testament for his seven year-old son. His wife, almost forty years younger than him, affectionately jokes that he’s writing his son’s ‘begats’. The novel takes the form of this letter or journal and tells the story of his father, who was a preacher, too, and his grandfather, a militant Abolitionist minister, who came from Maine to Kansas to mobilise people in the Civil War to fight against slavery. John Ames’s father, seeing the pity and destruction of that war, grows up to be a fervent pacifist, causing irreparable tension between himself and his father. It rewrites the parable of the prodigal son in the story of the relationship between his best friend and his son, John Ames Boughton, named after him. And almost as an aside to all this, it tells of his long, dark years of loneliness till the miracle of a woman’s appearance at one of his Sunday sermons turns his life around in the winter of his years.  It talks of the grace he has received from this late marriage and the birth of his son, the addressee of the book.

It is a novel about fathers and sons and it is a measure of the extraordinary ways in which Robinson renews and extends the metaphorical reach of language that the entire novel can be seen to be underpinned by the bond between the Father and His Son and that between Him and His mortal sons. Her prose, aligned with the sublime simplicity of the language of the Bible, is nothing short of a benediction. There could me no better description of the book than in the way Ames defines grace, ‘as a sort of ecstatic fire that takes things down to essentials’. You might not share its faith but it is difficult not to be awed, moved and ultimately humbled by the spiritual effulgence that lights up the novel from within. Robinson reminds us that all fiction is a kind of vision but whereas with most fiction we see as through a glass, darkly, her book makes us see face to face. It is a book as quiet as the fall of dew, and as life-enhancing.