This is my review of Gilead by Marilynne Robinson.
Set in small-town Kansas in the 1950s, this is a beautifully written mixture of reminiscences and musings on the meaning of life and faith by a pious old preacher, John Ames, intended to be read after his death by the son born very late in his life. You may be put off by some of the preachy passages and theological philosophizing, but this aspect is very much what you would expect of a man who has devoted his life to this way of thinking. Also, the dominance of religion and the plethora of sects is true to life in rural America. What could have become cloying hokum is made endurable for me by the frequent anecdotes of life in the often harsh world of rural Kansas, and the insights into relationships fractured by the Civil War, and differences of opinion over slavery and religion – pacificm versus muscular war-making, or even over the truth of religion itself. Ames' discovery of love as an old man, and his delight in his young son, are also portrayed well.
A key point is that "Gilead" (the name of the town where the story is set) is in fact "half a story" which benefits from being read in conjunction with "Home" which covers the same events from different perspectives. At the heart of both books lies Jack Boughton, son of Ames' old friend since childhood. Jack is a charismatic misfit, perhaps driven to become a the tortured drifter and drinker by his inability to accept his family's beliefs and life style. Returning to Gilead, like the Prodigal Son, he is the subject of both joy and sorrow for the two old men, both challenging and enriching their belief. The two books are so tightly bound together that some key scenes e.g. a lengthy discussion between Jack and the two old men as to whether people can be predestined to be bad, are reproducd verbatim in both books. On the other hand, key details, say of Jack's life, which are leaked out gradually in both books, are not duplicated, so that you have to read both to get the whole picture. I thought for a while that it would have been better to weld the two stories, "Gilead" and "Home", into one. However, that could have made the book quite long. I concluded that the two separate books "work" as an idea, and particularly like the interplay between the characters, and their different perceptions of the same events. If forced to choose, "Home" is easier to read, less theological, with more interaction between characters and dialogue, but perhaps less "profound" in its thinking.
At times I was bored by the rambling, repetitive passages which seem to me to indicate a lack of effort over devising a stucture, although they also of course convey the way people actually think. Similarly, some sentences are too long i.e. need to be read twice for the sense. In such a skilful wordsmith as Robinson this must be an intentional "stream of consciousness." It is a mark of this book that often some passing thought is represented as more significant than a major aspect of the plot. There is however some progression in the book, as the reason for Ames' hostility to Jack is revealed, and his feelings for the younger man gradually evolve to become more positive.
Gilead provides insights into both the joys and the utter sadness of life. Although I remain of the view that "Gilead" suffers from a lack of structure and that some relationships e.g between Jack and his wife. are too thin, this is a memorable book which will repay rereading.