Gilead – Marilynne Robinson

I have had this book in my TBR pile for absolutely ages and though it has won awards such as the Pulitzer (which I prefer to the Man Booker in general) and been praised by family, friends and some bloggers it has never quite sold itself to me when it actually comes to starting a new book. There are a few reasons for this that I can think one was that it doesn’t have chapters (which really put me off The Road but actually didn’t matter) and I like a break now and again. The other, more important, reason was that I didn’t like the look of the subject matter. Firstly it’s the letter of a dying man, and secondly it’s got a very religious theme which always makes me wary. I have nothing against religion, I am not religious myself though and don’t like ‘preachy books’. I was beginning to think this might be much more for my catholic Non Reader.

However knowing that I am going to be reading the Orange Shortlist over the next two weeks in the lead up to the winner being announced and knowing that Marilynne’s nominated book Home is in there and is a sequel and prequel and companion (confused much – I am) to Gilead I thought I should give it a go. There of course a big worry for me which was ‘if Gilead is rubbish how on earth am I going to get on with Home’? I opened it admittedly with quite a lot of trepidation…

Gilead is a novel which is in fact the letter of dying Reverend John Ames to his son written in Gilead, Iowa in 1956. Knowing that he will not be around for much longer and will not be able to tell his son of his ‘begats’ and family history he decides that he will write it all down for him. It’s his final testament if you will for his son ‘who may not remember me in the future’. Now you would be thinking that with a novel like this there isn’t going to be much joy, however actually despite there being no particular storyline this is really a book filled with the celebration of life. As John Ames memoirs come in stops and starts and have no particular structure you are given insight into the memories of an everyday man as he makes his way in the world and the trials and tribulations along the way.

I admit I was worried for the first 40 or so pages that this was going to be a beautifully written but ultimately boring read. Indeed was almost certain my ‘if you don’t like it by page 80 put it down’ rule was going to come into play but it didn’t. Page 80 was suddenly 20, 40, 60 pages behind me and the prose was taking me along with it on its meandering delightful journey. Robinson’s prose is possibly some of the most beautifully written prose I have the pleasure of turning pages too and undoubtedly is what kept me going to what is quite an ending (that is all I will say about the ending) and the final page.

Now it’s rare that a book can make me emotional but this one did. I don’t know if it’s because I myself have looked after someone who is terminally ill or just the prose and the way Robinson puts you into the mind of a dying man but passages such as this set me off.
“Just now I was listening to a song on the radio, standing there swaying to it a little, I guess, because your mother saw me from the hallway and she said, ‘I could show you how to do that.’ She came and put her arms around me and put her head on my shoulder, and after a while she said, in the gentlest voice you could ever imagine, ‘Why’d you have to be so damn old?’
I ask myself the same question.”

Was the religion in the book preachy? No not at all I actually found it quite insightful and thought provoking. There is a lot of debate over religion and war and how each affects the other and how divided people of the same faith can be over religious involvement, backing or prohibiting war can be. If this doesn’t sound like your cup of tea I would say give it a go and see how Robinson can change your mind with her prose. I will admit the book is slightly too long at 282 pages and occasionally I found that John Ames was repeating anecdotes or statements more than once. If stunning prose and subtle observations of life over none stop plot and all the fireworks is your thing then this is definitely the book for you. I am going to say I sit on the fence.

Having the knowledge that Home is now out you can see that the clues are very much there in Gilead that it was planned as Boughton is always being discussed mentioning his children are ‘home’ or are coming ‘home’. Part of me wonders if Robinson’s idea is to eventually write the life of all the inhabitants of Gilead. I would like to give Robinson’s Housekeeping a go as that sounds like it has a fascinating storyline. If Home has the prose of Gilead then I think that there isn’t really any competition in the Orange shortlist… I will be able to tell you within the next two weeks.

Do you prefer plot over prose? Have any of you read Housekeeping? I would ask you if you have read Home but as I haven’t yet I don’t want anyone giving anything away!


Filed under Marilynne Robinson, Pulitzer Prize, Review, Virago Books

16 responses to “Gilead – Marilynne Robinson

  1. Teresa

    This is one of my all-time favorite books. I’m actually a theology student, so the theology talk was of obvious interest to me. I really appreciated how Robinson showed how people’s beliefs about God interact with how they feel about the people around them.

    I’ve not read Housekeeping, but I have a copy. I have read Home, but I won’t say anything more about that since you don’t want anyone to give anything away 🙂

  2. Candy Schultz

    I think plot and prose are equally important and if you find a writer who does both really well then you have a masterpiece.

    Re Foucault – you absolutely don’t need a dictionary to read it. I didn’t bother the first two times. I just like increasing my vocabulary.

  3. Anonymous

    Home is amazing. i wont say anymore. housekeeping is on the tbr pile but i dont want to read it because then there will be no more Robinson to read until she writes another one!

  4. Savidge Reads

    Teresa – I don’t mind religion don’t get me wrong I just don’t want an author preaching through a book and she didn’t which was great! I am having a Robinson breather before Home!

    Candy – This sadly doesn’t quite have both but its prose is beyond a lot of prose I read in terms of beauty! Re that Eco I am making that a 2010 read!

    Lge – Saying home is amazing is a good start! As for no more Robinson she took 24 years to write Gilead so time will tell!

  5. Candy Schultz

    I will be waiting to find out what you think in 2010. It really is an erudite DaVinci Code type of book. Stronger on character than puzzles and trans-European jaunts.

  6. Molly

    I actually have to read Home for a summer school course, and I am hoping I have time to read Gilead as well.

    I am like you in that it has been on the TBR pile for years, but I have always been a little wary of starting it (boring potential is high; moral preachiness is certain). I will now know to push through to page 80 and prepare for a wonderful literary experience.

  7. megan

    This is such a great review. I’ve got Home on my TBR pile, and haven’t been able to decide whether or not I should read Gilead first – I’ve been put off for many of the same reasons you were. The passage you quoted is stunning – it’s definitely on my list to be read before Home, now.

    I like a good mix of plot and prose – that’s why I love the work of Australian novelist Tim Winton so much. Beautiful sentences, but also plot and character driven.

  8. kimbofo

    i tried to read this a couple of years ago, but didn’t get beyond the first couple of pages. I put it aside figuring I’d try it at another time when my mood was more suited to reading it.

    I bought “Home” two weeks ago on the basis of its Orange Prize shortlisting, so I suspect at some point I’m just going to have to knuckle down and read them both.

  9. Sandy Nawrot

    I can’t survive on prose alone. I need something going on. On the other hand, I’ve been entertained by alot of action and bad prose, but afterwards I’m disgusted with myself. Like I’m a sellout or something.

    This particular book needs to be added to my list. I saw a movie once called “My Life” and was about a man who was terminal, and made a video to his unborn child. Serious waterworks on that one. This book would probably have the same effect on me.

  10. Kim

    Good review, Simon. Gilead was a difficult read at first for me because I was frustrated at the pace, but, I am so glad I read through the pain. I was enthralled by all the characters(especially Jack) by the last page and didn’t want to turn it. Of course, now with Home, it seems that wasn’t the last page of the story after all.

  11. claire

    While I love plot, I always prefer prose over plot, so this one was a winner for me, too. I would really love to read Housekeeping, but I think I’ll pass with Home because I read somewhere that it’s just the same story, only written from Glory’s perspective. I would love to hear your thoughts, though. You might be able to convince me. 😀

    I do agree that this isn’t preachy at all. The religious themes aren’t imposing. They are there like a light touch of hand, and in the center of it all was really just a life reflected.

  12. Victoria

    I’m so glad you enjoyed it – it’s probably the only book I have returned to repeatedly in recent years. I read a particular passage over and over again (and fill up with tears each time!)

    I’ve read Housekeeping too, with great affection. Have to say, however, that I ultimately prefer Gilead. I think Robinson’s langour is perfectly suited to John Ames; Housekeeping can feel a little too wistful in comparison. Stylistically the novels are quite similar – she is such an accomplished artist – but you can tell that Housekeeping comes from an earlier phase in her career. It has the fingerprints of magical realism all over it. It has the flavour of a novel by Marquez, I think. 🙂

  13. Savidge Reads

    Candy – You dont need to sell it to me anymore hahahaha I promise will read it early 2010 (sounds so futuristic that number!)

    Molly – From what I gather I would definately read Gilead first… unless anyone thinks I am wrong?

    Megan – Thank you! The characters are good yet they dont ever seem very important if that makes sense?

    Kimbofo – its worth knuckling down I am really glad I did, I think its one of those books you are really pleased to read after you have read it, do you know what I mean?

    Sandy – I didnt expect to cry but had a good weep, make sure you have tissues with you!

    Kim – Don’t say any more… you might give it all away! Eek! Glad you liked it, I wasnt bothered by Jack for some reason.

    Claire – You minx dont say its the same story – oh now am worried, not that the story was bad there just wasnt much of one.

    Victoria – Housekeeping sounds intriguing I am not going to rush out and buy it but if I see it I might accidentally leave with it (and I dont mean steal it)!

  14. claire

    Ooops.. sorry!! It was just one blogger’s review, that’s all! Haha. Apparently, a lot of others really loved it. My bad!!

  15. claire

    P.S. Don’t take my word for it as I haven’t read the book. Sorry again! 😀

  16. Pingback: Tinkers – Paul Harding « Savidge Reads

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