Gilead (2004)

By Marilynne Robinson

There is a human beauty in it. And I can’t believe that, when we have all been changed and put on incorruptibility we will forget our fantastic condition of morality and impermanence, the great bright dream of procreating and perishing the meant the world to us. In eternity this world will be Troy, I believe and all that has passed here will be the epics of the universe, the ballad they sing in the streets. Because I don’t imagine any reality putting this one in the shade entirely, and I think piety forbids me to try.

Gilead is the story of a dying father, John Ames, wanting to leave something behind for his seven-year-old son. Ames writes a letter, or one could call it a diary, in which he reflects on the nature of life, beauty, theology and religion, growing up, and love.

My attempt at a description doesn’t come even close to doing it justice, I would recommend just picking up the book without any prior knowledge and reading it, slowly. Not the way you would inhale a blockbuster thriller or dystopian future but, gently breathe it in, and savor every breath. You can’t zip through it, you can’t binge read it in one sitting, that takes away from the joy of the experience. In fact I believe the book doesn’t allow you to read it in one sitting. After every section or so it almost forces you to put it down to allow the weight of it to sink into you. The characters and the events are revealed gently and slowly throughout the novel and you don’t feel the need to rush through to get to know anything, if there is an innocent and pure equivalent to a strip tease, that would be an apt description of the way it unfolds. It is stunning and awesome (in the traditional sense of full of awe and not my usual awesome) if you don’t allow yourself to experience that you’d be doing both yourself and the novel a disservice.

It is a phenomenal book and I can’t find the words to translate my feelings. The writing is eloquent, crisp, and beautiful. You feel Ames as he is writing to his son, you feel his thoughts, his feelings, his despair and his love. It’s raw, pure, unfiltered emotions. You could describe it as a stream of consciousness which would be correct, but I feel that by labeling it you take away part of it’s ephemeral and enchanting beauty. It is probably one of the most beautiful and moving books I’ve ever read.

Do you know the feeling when you read a George Herbert poem, or maybe that feeling you get when you watch Amy Adam’s face as she’s playing a sad role, or that tingle you feel in your spine that then becomes like a strange glowing warmth growing in your chest as you listen to a piece by Max Richter? Maybe you don’t, that’s not important, I’ll try to explain it. It’s like a sadness that is also beautiful, a joyful sorrow, or maybe it’s a sorrowful joy. Its transcendent. Even before you finish reading it, even while reading the novel you are constantly left with a mixture of feelings, that of wonder and beauty but also with an irresistible desire to weep but not out of pure sadness. Does this make any sense? The novel was stunning in every way, shape, and form. I keep using the word beautiful because that is exactly what it is, the word may have been watered down and lost it luster because it has been overused, but read Gilead it defines beauty.

Gilead might be considered a defense (that is quite an aggressive word) of religion but instead it’s a call to look at religion not through the actions of fundamentalists or even priests and followers, but at the way it influences an individual’s life, not only spiritually but the individual as a whole. Personally, I am not spiritual but rather religious (something a friend pointed out to me a while ago and it allowed me to put a name to my religious experience), anyway, Gilead is not a call to spirituality and abandoning religion with its rites and rituals as many novels recently do. Nor is it calling to a strictly ritualistic religion. It’s calling for an appreciation of religion in its most beautiful and pure forms, and also calling for the appreciation of thought: Ames quotes Calvin and Feuerbach in the same sentence. And even though some might perceive it as a religious text or a strictly Christian text, it’s not. The discussion can be applied to any of the three Abrahamic religions in one way or another, even as a devout Muslim I was moved and felt much of it could be applied to my own faith.

For my fellow Early Modernist or EM enthusiasts, Gilead does read like the love child of Montaigne, Calvin, and Herbert. And in my opinion that makes Marilynne  Robinson rather divine.

If I’m rating books on a five star scale, this would go way beyond a 5. It’s one of those books that become like a personal bible and you read again and again.


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