Saturday, March 29, 2014

Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson - book review

Read 29/03/2014
Rating: 3/5

A dying reverend's story, addressed to his young son, touching on different aspects of the life he lead in the rural town of Gilead. Having a heart condition, he knows his life won’t last very much longer and that his son will grow up with only early childhood memories of his father, so he sets about putting his life and thoughts to the page to provide the continuity that the son will most probably later require.

A lot happened in and around Gilead, and the reverend’s story is one that spans three generations of reverends, with their similarities and inevitable discords.

The reverend’s depiction of his life is tedious at first. It comes off as a lot of humblebrag, congratulating himself on the steadfastly pious life he has led, the few minor indulgences he allowed himself (basically books) and the ease with which he accepted God’s will in the hardships endured. He gives thanks for meeting a good woman late in life and having a son.

Then, gradually, a character sneaks his way into the story and steals the narrative, forcing the reverend to confront the areas of darkness in Gilead’s and his own past, that he hadn’t intended to. Jack Ames Boughton, his namesake, the prodigal son of a fellow preacher friend, who comes back to Gilead at his father’s request, yet whose true intentions remain veiled. The reverend, though he won’t admit it outright, fears that Jack is there to take his place when he departs, to woo his widow and install himself in his house. In order to credibly warn his son against the man that he believes Jack Boughton to be, he has to delve into Jack’s past, inextricably linked to his own, and which exposes areas of his life that he initially had not intended to expose.

The reverend’s story is touching because it is flawed, because his language is repetitive and often self-indulgent. For instance, he often flatly states “that is a remarkable thing” about just about anything. Or, “this planet is deserving of all the attention that one can give it”, which could arguably be said about just about any planet. Sometimes, the modesty is infuriating: he’ll affirm something, then add that he doesn't quite understand it, though he clearly does, as when he quotes “things that don't exist in relation to other things cannot be said to exist at all”. He repeatedly lauds existence as a remarkable thing, but what is he comparing it to, inexistence?

The gloves come off though, so to speak, when he realizes that his wife feels a growing sympathy for Jack Boughton. We writes, “It is one of the best traits of good people that they love where they pity. And this is truer of women than of men.” His business with Jack is far from finished, however, and Jack’s developing story compels him to inspect his own life with a more probing eye, revealing truths more profound because they are more painful, but for whom he can ultimately only be thankful for, being the reverend that he is.

I found it quite challenging to get into the mind of this reverend who seldom if ever left his small town, who remains steadfastly attached to his faith and his tranquil and (mostly) unexciting life, but I’m glad I did. The reverend’s life, with all its myriad renunciations, is made all the more engaging for the beauty he sees in the world.

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