I’ve never read a more beautiful book than Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead: A Novel. Only her second novel, Gilead comes 23 years after her first book Housekeeping and is written better than her previous work. In Gilead, Ms. Robinson fills every page with a rare richness. In only 250 pages, she is able to invoke more wisdom than most people could accrue in several lifetimes.
The novel is told in the voice of Reverend John Ames, a man who married and had a child with a younger woman. Ames has recently been diagnosed with a chronic condition and does not have long to live.
As the book progresses the Reverend writes a series of memories and observations to leave to his little boy, a collection of ideas for the present, past, and future that Ames has stored up over the course of his whole life.
His wealth of descriptions are never sappy or bland, instead they are the reflections of a man whose life that has been devoted to the pursuit of Heaven, yet who finds himself reluctant to leave earth. This subject may not seem an interesting one, yet the Revered’s observations are unmistakably human.
Just when it seems that the descriptions have gotten a little long winded, Robinson introduces Jack Boughton, the rebellious son of Ames’s best friend and fellow minister. Jack Boughton is a young, wreck of man who has long brought trouble and heartache to everyone who encounters him.
Ames wrestles with his feelings of bitterness and jealousy towards this Jack’s past and potential present destructiveness. Jack, who charms Ames’ wife and entertains Ames’ son, threatens the dying minster and causes him to worry about the potential dangers his family will face when he is gone.
The difficulties Ames’ must confront, his disgust for Jack and his own feelings of loss and regret create a tension which alters the second half of the novel and brings in an element of reality and emotion that compels the listener forward.
Ultimately, Gilead is a novel of a good man who handles the events of his life with sincerity, integrity, and grace. He (rather Robinson) does not try to teach us how to live; however, we cannot help but soak up some wisdom anyway.
Tim Jerome narrates Gilead. I found his voice to be somewhat more reminiscent of Gandalf than an aged Midwestern minister. His reading is decent, has a round tone, and is easy to listen to, but it is does not exactly match the prose.