I have only just finished reading a book I should have read when I was a young man. Except as a young man I wouldn’t have understood it; still less appreciated its lessons. Now fuller in years, and with experience of some of life’s puzzles and paradoxes, maybe I shouldn’t be surprised how the fictional diary entries of an old preacher, who has spent his life in the same remote and dying country town, can speak so powerfully and convincingly to me.
To read ‘Gilead’ by Marilynne Robinson is an experience profound. The language is simple, the style conversational, and yet this book takes a small slice of the human experience and renders it as beautifully and insightfully as any I have ever read. It has won a Pulitzer Prize. ‘Masterpiece’ is a fair label.
This is not a “Christian” book, so don’t be put off by whatever negative prejudice you may harbour on that score. If you are not human it may not appeal to you. If you are still young enough to think that you are in control it may not make sense to you either. Otherwise I suspect you will readily identify with the theme and the characters. It is a book about flawed individuals and full of simple, powerful and loving wisdom.
The style is unconvential and may be a little off-putting to those used to text written in ‘sound bites’ and ideas each with their own short chapter. Persistence will pay off however in this rich and beautiful novel. ‘Gilead’ is written reflectively as a stream of thoughts in the mind of John Ames, the ageing preacher, near death, as he completes a diary for his young son, who he hopes will read it when he becomes an adult, and thereby will come to know his father in a way impossible for a small child.
The language may be simple (yet beautiful), but the ideas in this book are deep and engaging: From love, life, doubt, friendship, honour, death, and grief, to the difficulty of forgiveness, to the meaning of existence. I can not remember a book that has brought about such a response me, nor left me feeling as satisfied after finishing it.
‘Gilead’ will leave you thinking more deeply about your existence. A few gems short enough to reproduce here will maybe give you an idea of what is on offer:
“Adulthood is a wonderful thing, and brief”.
“I can tell you this, that if I’d married some rosy dame and she had given me ten children and each had given me ten grandchildren, I’d leave them all on Christmas Eve, on the coldest night of the world, and walk a thousand miles just for the sight of your face, your mother’s face.”
“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 is worth living long enough to outlive any sense of grievance you may acquire. Another reason you must be careful of your health.”
“There are a thousand thousand reasons to live this life. Every one of them sufficient”.
“This morning I have been trying to think about heaven, but without much success. I don’t know why I should expect to have any idea about heaven. I could never have imagined this world if I hadn’t spent almost eight decades walking around in it. . . . I will not (understand heaven) and would not if I had a dozen lives. That’s clearer to me every day.”