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Gilead / Marilynne Robinson (2004)

In 1954, told he is not long for this world, 74 year old Congregationalist pastor John Ames sets out to write a testament of his life for his seven year old son. Ames has lived in the Iowan town of Gilead all his life. It is a digressive testament, journal-like, added to day by day. It starts out in the past, focusing on the conflict between his pacifist father and his abolitionist grandfather, both ministers of the same church he now pastors. The second half focuses on the present return of his prodigal grandson, Jack Boughton, and Ames struggle to love Jack. In the end, love wins out and Jack confides his secret to Ames.

Robinson’s prose is careful, precise, close to perfect even as she writes in the cadence and idiom of an old man fifty years ago. It was twenty-four years since her previous novel and it feels like the sort of novel a writer might spend decades on.

It is wise and grace-filled. It is Christian in many senses, but perhaps most importantly because its heart is grace: grace is embedded in the narrator and the novel. (I don’t think Christianity is or should be simply grace at its heart, but I think the novel and the novelist might contend so.) It is a novel which shows a lot of love for people and the world, even in their ugliness and brokenness.

Ames’ grace contrasts with his grandfather’s ‘activism’ and his father’s ‘holiness’. Robinson is contrasting three streams of Christianity – what Richard Foster would call in Streams of Living Water the social justice, holiness and incarnational streams. For Ames’ grandfather, Christianity means justice at any cost, and he steals and shoots to achieve it. For Ames’ father, having no part in evil is what counts, and he leaves the church for a time during the war to sit with the pacifist Quakers.

Robinson privileges Ames’ type of Christianity – a moderate, grace-filled faith of small things. There’s less certainty and more mystery.

There are few novels that are both so Christian and so accomplished. There are evangelicals writing consciously Christian novels which are Christianised popular fiction. There are great writers (Updike and Greene, both now deceased; Winton) with Christian tendenancies or some measure of faith writing novels which have some Christian themes. But there are few writers writing great literature that are so drenched in a Christian worldview.

And yet having said that, I didn’t connect to the novel as much as I wanted to. I think it just comes down to my personal aesthetics of writing, that this isn’t the kind of book I like to read best. Perhaps it’s the lack of particular kind of narrative drive I miss. Perhaps I like less saintly narrators with more ambition and sin to their name.

Last year, Robinson published a follow-up novel from the perspective of Jack. I’m looking forward to reading it.