Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Gilead by Marilyn Robinson

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

# Hardcover: 256 pages
# Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2004
# ISBN: 0374153892
# Price: $23.00

What a luxury, what a fine wine on the literary palate this book has been to read. Gilead by Marilyn Robinson is all that I seek in literature that achieves artistic form. The author's language is mesmerizing, frequently breathtaking, and her ability to develop her few but well chosen characters without relying on plot and action as crutch is worthy of respect.

Gilead is something of a journal, or letter, written by an elderly priest, John Ames, to his still very young son as he feels the approach of death. It is his attempt to pass something of himself and their family history on to his son, long after he will be gone. His story is a meditation on faith and the bonds of father and son, of husband and wife, of family and friends, of priest and his congregation, of man and nature. It is not, however, a religious story (those who are not drawn to Christian literature need not fear this novel might wax preachy or hit a didactic note -- it does not).

I was magnetically drawn to the character of John Ames because Robinson so ably created him as a man with the greatest courage possible -- the courage to be vulnerable to the world around him. He has achieved grace, because we see him address his own shortcomings and weaknesses without looking away. He works to love, even those he on some level fears, even when he feels tinges of jealousy, regret, suspicion, as any man might.

"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 of heaven. I could never have imagined this world if I hadn't spent almost eight decades walking around in it. People talk about how wonderful the world seems to children, and that's true enough. But children think they will grow into it and understand it, and I know very well that I will not, and would not, and would not if I had a dozen lives. That's clearer to me every day. Each morning I'm like Adam waking up in Eden, amazed at the cleverness of my hands and at the brilliance pouring into my mind through my eyes--old hands, old eyes, old mind, a very diminished Adam altogether, and still it is just remarkable..." (page 67)

Ames is filled with gratitude for all that his simple life has bestowed on him: the love of a devoted wife, the adoration of a young son, the warranted attention of a congregation, but just as fully, for the beauty of each day gifted to him.

"I love the prairie! So often I have seen the dawn come and the light flood over the land and everything turn radiant at once, that word 'good' so profoundly affirmed in my soul that I am amazed I should be allowed to witness such a thing. There may have been a more wonderful first moment 'when the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy,' but for all I know the contrary, they still do sing and shout, and they certainly might well. Here on the prairie there is nothing to distract attention from the evening and the morning, nothing on the horizon to abbreviate or to delay. Mountains would seem an impertinence from that point of view..." (page 246)

Perhaps one must be facing one's own death to see life and the world so richly, and to express it with such eloquence and love. Readers may feel blessed to have found an author who accomplishes this level of eloquence. The Pulitzer Prize awarded this work of literary art is well deserved.

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