‘Gilead’ by Marilynne Robinson

Gileadstarstarstarstarstar‘Gilead’ appears on Barack Obama’s favourite books list. Yann Martel, author of Life of Pi, took up the challenge in 2007 of recommending books to Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, 101 books over the course of 4 years. Every two weeks he politely sent a book and wrote a letter with it, giving reasons for his recommendation. ‘Gilead’ is one of those 101 books. Martel says he hoped that Obama and Harper would discuss the book after Harper had read it, a sort of impromptu book club!

Pulitzer Prize winner in 2005, ‘Gilead’ does deserve the kind of attention that world leaders could give it. But it is surprising because even though it is a carefully constructed novel, it reads like a gentle ambling story offering glimpses of truth, love, grace, humility, and forgiveness. Story does so many things for us. It makes us more humane and more human and even the simplest story can be skillful at communicating profound and complex themes.

‘Gilead’ is a beautiful example of how a good story should be more about finding the right questions, rather than having all of the answers. This is what some Christian fiction suffers from, in my opinion – too many pat answers which tend to trivialize, moralize, and sentimentalize. In contrast, Robinson’s prose is refreshingly quiet and deep, a celebration of life in all its fullness. And yet, it also honestly conveys the tensions in ordinary relationships and personalities. We certainly are not perfect, but God loves us, and we can still be a joy to Him and to others even so. Wisdom is hard-won and grief and sorrow will always be a part of it.

Rev. John Ames is old and dying. He has a very young wife who has been a delight to him in his latter years and she has borne him a son. He starts a letter to this young son, who he knows will have to grow up without him. The whole book is the letter, without chapter headings or breaks. Written in a meditative style, Ames humbly and with good humour, tells his son about his ancestors, about the nature of love and friendship, and about the part that faith and prayer played in his life. He tells stories where the richest lessons are not so much taught, as caught. This is a devotional book but is approachable and captivating for any audience; one reviewer said, “even the faithless reader can feel the possibility of transcendent order.”

‘Gilead’ has to receive full marks, but having said that, I also recognize that not everyone will enjoy it. As a novel, there is not much plot and as a book about lifelong learning (Ames is still trying to figure things out in his seventies), easy summaries or generalities cannot be gleaned from it. This book is an experience. If you already read ‘Gilead’ years ago, I would recommend a re-read (it might speak differently to you now) or else pick up one of Robinson’s companion novels, Home, or the most recent Lila, both of which expand on other characters in ‘Gilead’ and do not need to be read in any order.

4 responses to “‘Gilead’ by Marilynne Robinson

  1. I’m trying to decide if the fact that Obama has added this to his top reads is a compelling reason to read the book — or not! 🙂

    • I want to know if Stephen Harper ever read it after Yann Martel sent it to him! I enjoyed it, but it’s not for everyone. Try it, what have you got to lose? Read it slowly, let it sink in.

  2. I’m eagerly awaiting your review of the Children’s Act. I read it and it’s especially relevant right now in the wake of a Judge’s decision last week to turn down doctors’ request to treat an 11-year old girl for cancer against her Aboriginal mother’s wishes given the mother’s legally protected rights to administer native healing treatments.

    • Wow, that’s surprising. I’m two thirds through and it’s very good. But then I’m a McEwan fan. I may not want to include the final verdict vis a vis spoiler though. 🙂

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