Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Gilead by Marilynne Robinson

Gilead,  by Marilynne Robinson, Virago, 282pp

I usually read a novel or two when on holiday and this year I opted for Marilynne Robinson's Gilead. It is an unusual novel in that it takes the form of an extended letter from an ageing Minister to his seven year old son. Widower, the Reverend John Ames remarried and fathered a child late in life. He knows that he is mortally ill and wants to leave his son with some lasting impressions of the father who loved him so much. The narrative flits back and forth from Ames's observations on life at the time he was writing up his dying testament to memories of his own childhood and later years. Usually when pastors feature in a novel they are either charlatans or creeps. But, refreshingly, John Ames, a man of sincere faith and deep compassion is the real hero of the Robinson's story.

Ames's father and grandfather were pastors before him. Through Ames the writer vividly describes the strained yet poignant relationship between her main character's pacifist father and his eccentric, visionary grandfather, a combatant in the American Civil War. Ames's best friend, Robert Boughton is also a Minister. One of the amazing things about Gilead is the way the author gets into the mind and soul of her leading character as he endeavours to deal with life's challenges in the light of his Christian faith. The novel includes insightful reflections on the pastoral ministry some interesting theological discussion. Ames's favourite theologians are John Calvin and Karl Barth. Grace, forgiveness and blessing are the novel's theological keynotes, especially when Ames perceives a threat to his family from Boughton's wayward son, Jack. At one point Jack presses his father and Ames on the issue of predestination, seemingly worried that a sinner like him might not be among the elect. Neither Minister quite knows what to say and the matter is left hanging in the air. I think Calvin would have pointed him to Christ as the "mirror of our election". We can only know that we are amongst the elect by first looking to Jesus.

The novel's unhurried pace slowly draws the reader into the internal world of the dying Minister. The fact that Ames knows that his time is short makes him all the more aware of the often unobserved beauties of creation. He enjoys watching the sun come up in the silence of his empty church building. He delights in watching his son and a friend playfully splashing around in a water sprinkler and comments on the way the sunlight made the water droplets shimmer and glow. Often life is lived at such a pace that there is little time for  meditation on the simple blessings that the Lord so richly bestows upon us. Ames hopes that heaven will be a glorious amplification of the wonders of God's creation  rather than a negation of life in this world. If we are thinking in terms of the new creation, I'm sure he's right.

As the novel draws to a close the tension is ratcheted up. The preacher believes that his wife and young son are in danger of being drawn towards the villainous Jack Boughton and that they will be at his mercy after Ames is dead. The Reverend can imagine forgiving Jack for sinning against him, but forgiving him for wronging his friends and loved ones is altogether more problematic. You'll have to read Marilynne Robinson's exquisitely written and absorbing novel, Gilead for yourself to find out if grace, forgiveness and blessing win out in the end.


David Reimer said...

I received Gilead as a Christmas gift in 2008. What a wonderful novel! I'm looking forward to the re-read ... sometime. No rush. :)

Anonymous said...

I'm in the middle of Home which is sort of Gilead's twin. Such writing is worth savouring as much of as one can get!