Book Reviews
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A Spiritual Force – Gilead by Marilynne Robinson

Gilead by Marilynne Robinson

Gilead is a long letter written by Rev. John Ames to his seven-year-old son, whom he begat at a very late age. Rev. Ames believes his death is imminent due to his failing heart so he sets out to write something that his child would read. He does so because he believes that his young son would barely have enough memories of him when he gets older. As Rev. Ames continues to write his letter, the novel becomes a fragmented diary filled with Rev. Ames’s memories of his youth, his family, his loved ones, and his feelings for his son.


This is one of the few books that I’ve reread. The first reading was amazing, and this second pass is even better that it demands a second piece of writing. It’s not so much as missing a number of things from the first time as fully appreciating the prose, both in the textual and subliminal levels. This is not to say that I previously misread the whole thing. I firmly believe that it is impossible not to understand the novel because the language is clean, unpretentious, and it drives straight to the heart.

I don’t mean to say that this is a purely sentimental novel that romanticizes the last moments that a dying man and his young son have left. Rev. Ames writes about various topics that concern mostly his family and his life in Gilead, Iowa. He has been the pastor of the town for nearly half a century. In novels where characters are religious or where narrators are devoted servers of the Church, there is the danger of turning the novel into a comprehensive Sunday sermon or a plainly pious piece of writing that would alienate the nonbelievers.

That’s the strangest thing about this life, about being in the ministry. People change the subject when they see you coming. And then sometimes those very same people come into your study and tell you the most remarkable things. There’s a lot under the surface of life, everyone knows that. A lot of malice and dread and guilt, and so much loneliness, where you wouldn’t really expect to find it either.

Gilead avoids becoming either of the two. Still, there are the passages that will make you heave deep sighs, but there are also moments of small comedy and bits of history. And even if we are reading the words of a pastor, the reader does not hear the tone of supreme authority. Indeed, Rev. Ames is a good, virtuous man, but he is also human. He will have lapses and he will provide us with a sense of intrigue as the novel unfurls to its latter parts.

[Though I must say all this has given me a new glimpse of the ongoingness of the world. We fly forgotten as a dream, certainly, leaving the forgetful world behind us to trample and mar and misplace everything we have ever cared for. That is just the way of it, and it is remarkable.]

Good characters do not always come up with boring stories. Rev. Ames has really interesting stories to share despite the lack of physical action. The conflict between his pacifist father and his radical grandfather, the story of his brother who has shirked away from the long line of pastors, his late marriage, his best friend who is also a pastor, and his namesake, his best friend’s prodigal son, are some of the big stories that the seven-year-old will be reading as soon as he gets his hands on the letter.

Since this novel resembles a diary, there is also the danger of writing too much about mundane details that might make the reader uninterested. This mundaneness, however, is celebrated even more than holidays. Rev. Ames talks about grace found in the little events of life, about how he loves such moments, and about how he feels more alive in them. The reader must restrain himself from reading too fast because there is so much detail that should not be missed. The words are stripped down to the bare necessities, and it works perfectly because it is these little quiet words that make Gilead such an illuminating book.

[To me it seems rather Christlike to be as unadorned as this place is, as little regarded. I can’t help imagining that you will leave sooner or later, and it’s fine if you have done that, or if you mean to do it. This whole town does look like whatever hope becomes after it begins to weary a little, then weary a little more. But hope deferred is still hope. I love this town. I think sometimes of going into the ground here as a last wild gesture of lover-I too will smolder away the time until the great and general incandescence.]

This novel was published almost two decades after Robinson’s first novel, Housekeeping, which talks about women and which makes Gilead quite a departure from it since it talks about fathers. The two are somewhat similar because there are characters in each that are thrust into the future with their fates still questionable, and they deal so much about our mortal lives.

In these times where there is so much credit given to style and structure, where does one put novels that meander on and on only in calm waters? On what pedestal should novels with great spiritual power be placed? What happens to books that inspire so much interest but are always stuck on the to-read shelves?

Have faith. These books will find their ways to the readers and will make us believe that there are miracles after all.


Dates Read: April 1 to 9, 2013

No. of Pages: 247

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

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8 Comments

  1. Interesting! The fact that you have read it twice and that it dictates a third time caught my attention. I like a book that urges people to reread it. :)

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  2. I’ve read her first novel Housekeeping which I liked a lot but haven’t read Gilead or Home, but based on your strong favorable reaction to it, I will definitely get Gilead. Thanks!

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    • Robinson is a great writer. I love all her novels. I am now trying to get my hands on her nonfictional works. :)

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