Thursday, October 27, 2011


After much anticipation, I finally read Marilynne Robinson's Gilead earlier this year. I've been doing companion reviews of Gilead and Home with Sam (you can read his review of Gilead here), so before starting to write my review I reread his post. It's amazing what different reactions we had to this book! But while I read through his post thinking "I guess I'll just chalk it up to different tastes", I was struck by one comment which I wanted to dispute, which seems to say that the character of John Ames, the main character of the novel, is lost in the writing, with the reader instead looking through the eyes of his son. Which is interesting, because for me this novel is so grounded in the character of the narrator, his voice comes through so clearly and we get to know him so well throughout the course of the book, that I found it hard to understand this point of view. So maybe we can argue about this point in the comments?

But I am getting ahead of myself. Gilead is written from the point of view of the aging pastor, Reverend John Ames, ostensibly as a letter to his young son. In it he talks about his family history, wrapped up with the history of the small town of Gilead in which he still lives, his faith, and about his life. Eventually his account is interrupted by the return of the prodigal son of his best friend, his namesake Jack Ames Boughton. The narrative runs parallel to the story of Home, set in the Boughton household, and though Gilead was written first there is no clear order to the books. I read Home first, and I wonder how it would change the experience to read them the other way round? A lot of the revelations are shared in the books, so something that was a surprise to discover in one becomes background knowledge when you read the other. But there are still surprises in store in each, and in fact the lightness of plot means that not much is lost by knowing some of the twists beforehand. This is a book where language and character take centre stage. I think one of the things that I noticed about reading Gilead second is that it ends the pair on a more uplifting note, I found Home more bittersweet and I think it would create an entirely different flavour to read them the other way around.

There is so much that I loved about this book, it is a book that I want to read through again and savour more slowly. If anything I feel that I was maybe in a slightly too impatient mood to read through it the first time, and there was a little bit of theology that I may have skimmed through. But I think that was my fault rather than the book's. I thought John Ames was a great character, I loved reading the delight he took in his existence, his joy and his resignation, his wisdom and his vulnerabilities. I also loved the language. Something that I noted in my review of Housekeeping by Marilynne Gilead was the language of water and light- something which I didn't notice in Home but was certainly present in Gilead. Water is often associated with baptism here, and the Ames thoughts on baptism and communion, the way he seems to see them as so personal, were so refreshing to me. But light is really everywhere the quality of light seems to evoke the beauty Ames sees in his surroundings, as well as a kind of nostalgia often:

                          But it has all been one day, that first day. Light is constant, we just turn over in it. So every day is in fact the selfsame evening and morning.

or a moment that has remained significant in Ames' memory of his father:

                        Then I realized that what I saw was a full moon rising just as the sun was going down. Each of them was standing on its edge, with the most wonderful light between them. It seemed as if you could touch it, as if there were palpable currents of light passing back and forth, or as if there were great skeins of light suspended between them. I wanted my father to see it, but I knew I'd have to startle him out of his prayer, and I wanted to do it the best way, so I took his hand and kissed it.

It seems as though the light that Ames sees suffuses the book and his character. Though it's clear that he has seen some dark times the presence of his wife and son see him content with life. 

The other thing that I wanted to mention in this post was the treatment of race in the book. It's so important in the history of the town, in the histories of the characters (or at least of Jack), and yet it is not overtly present. There are no black people in Gilead, though it came into being as part of the underground railroad, because their church burnt down. There is so much that is unspoken here and yet it makes itself felt- the way that people don't see it and yet it is still there. This novel is, after all, set in the 1950s, when America was still segregated. I think this novel does a good job of showing how that segregation affected everyone, even a small town in the mid-West with only white folks in it.  

I think there is more in this book than I can possibly cover, I will have to read it again and if you do want more reviews, there are some lovely ones at Stuck-in-a-Book, Book Snob, and Evening All Afternoon's discussion of Home and Gilead, as well as Sam's aforementioned companion review


  1. Yeah, don't think that was my strongest argument. I think, rather than "we kind of lose the narrator" I was more trying to say "I started to care less about the narrator." It's all a personal memoir-style narrative so his character is very well fleshed-out, but my sympathy began to wane due to the mounting influence of his procrastination and constant moral abstractions. It seemed to me like he spends the second half of the book wavering between whining about how troublesome Jack is and citing theology to explain why he shouldn't breach Jack's confidence - even though there doesn't seem to be a problem with him whining a lot about Jack's troublesome nature.

    Again I'm providing a simplistic reading of the book, and if the emotional core of the relationship between John and Jack hits home for you then this cynical interpretation will seem completely alien. I certainly didn't dislike the book or the narrator overall, it just didn't quite hit the mark, and so the longer he tarried the less I began to care.

    I look forward to reading Home and seeing if it has more emotional resonance.

  2. That makes more sense to me- and I think I liked him a bit less for those parts too. But I think they are to do with him wrestling with his conscious, part of his annoyance with Jack is jealousy and Ames feels that he should leave Jack out of it, but of course can't resist eluding to what he wants to write anyway. I think it's key because part of the reason for his dislike for Jack is based on the issue of the names, and Ames feels he is being unfair but can't shake the dislike, and at the end of the book the relationship is resolved... Well I don't think I'm describing it well.

    Anyway, it will be interesting to hear about your reactions to Home!