I have been reading Gilead by Marilynne Robinson for the past couple of weeks and was determined to finish it today, no matter how much housework had to go undone.........;)
The Reverend John Ames is suffering with a heart condition and coming to the end of his life. Through a series of letters written to his 7 year old son, he reveals his thoughts, musing and observations, and slowly but surely, paints a colourful and unique picture of himself, his father, his grandfather, his best friend, his wife and also his young son and all the various family members connected with them throughout the late 19th and first half of the 20th century. At the same time an intriguing landscape of war-torn, small town USA rises from the stories over the years as the characters unfold. The aim of writing this account is to offer advice in matters that a father would guide a son through and to help the boy better understand his heritage and ultimately, the man John Ames was. This is particularly important as the reverend knows he will not be around for the child when he gets old enough to ask questions first hand.
Ames best friend, Boughton, has eight children and one in particular, Jack, is the son who is both his father's favourite and John Ames's godson. He is named after the reverend as John Ames Broughton and is the prodigal son in every way. His return to Gilead during the story, causes grave concerns and misgivings for Ames and great joy to Boughton Snr., who is also very elderly and in ill health himself. As the relationship between Ames and Jack unravels, the true purpose of Jack's visit becomes apparent, after all.
The reverend is very devout and there are lots of religious references and quotations as well as political and philosophical debates in the text, but, none of this detracts from the story. Nor does the content come across as closet-preaching in anyway, it is all very much part of the portrait being painted.
Gilead is a truly skillful piece of writing. The various stories, the plot and all the connections between the characters only come to light at the slow pace the reverend allows them to appear. This is so masterfully done that by the end of the book I could really feel the weight on the Reverend's shoulders as he labours through his days with a failing heart. It is a book which asks difficult questions and is filled with flawed characters who take actions and make mistakes in their lives that are difficult to forgive. It is poignant and heartbreakingly sad in parts and I loved Jack from the moment he entered the story.
The book demands patience and attention, but, is well worth the effort of giving both. Let me know if you have read it and what you think.