Gilead by Marilynne Robinson


Originally published in 2004, Gilead is the first in Marilynne Robinson’s ‘Gilead Trilogy’ which also includes Home and Lila, the latter of which was longlisted for last year’s Man Booker Prize. Set in the 1950’s the novel is a story of life passed on from father to son.

‘There’s a lot under the surface of life, everyone knows that.’

As he approaches the end of his life, Reverend John Ames begins a letter to his young son. Narrated by Ames, Gilead is a letter from a father to his son that covers life, death and everything in between. It is a patchwork of memories and stories of family history. It also focuses on religion and faith but despite not being a religious person myself this didn’t influence my enjoyment of the book. Instead I found that Robinson’s use of faith reflects humanity and morality.

‘You may not remember me very well at all, and it may seem to you to be no great thing to have been the good child of an old man…’

Whilst the plot and narrative style is relatively simple this is a novel that contains so much more than I anticipated. The Reverend tells his son about his family, recalling memories both good and bad. He also provides a lot of his thoughts and musings on life and this included many beautiful moments. It is a novel that reminds us of what is most important in life, and how life itself is something to treasure – a point which can sometimes be lost in the hustle and bustle of modern life.

‘I know you will be and I hope you are an excellent man, and I will love you absolutely if you are not’

The fact that Ames is close to the end of his life and soon to be leaving behind his child makes the story a melancholic one. However, it is not a completely gloomy read. It is a poignant story which looks at how we come to terms with death, how we can accept it and feel gratitude for a life we have loved. In his letter, Ames ensures his son knows everything he needs to know, to ensure he has something to remember his father by and to know how much he is loved.

‘There is a wound in the flesh of human life that scars when it heals and often enough seems never to heal at all.’

Gilead is a touching, tender novel. It is a gentle mediation on life and death, family and faith which contains moments for reflection and moments to savour. It is a subtle but beautiful story of a father’s life and love.

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