Book Reviews: Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson

This year has been sparse for reading for various reasons, but now is as good as anytime to write book reviews again.

Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead is a book I’d wanted to read for a while. It didn’t disappoint.

It’s a slow story, told in epistolary/journal form by an elderly pastor to his young son. It’s a story about fathers and sons, family, and the struggle to reconcile different worlds and the rift between generations and lifestyles. It’s also a Christian story, about how an earthly father deals with a prodigal son.

The prose is luminous. Robinson has a way of turning the most everyday observation, and the most introspective thought, into a marvellous occasion. It is also rife with symbolism, all subtle, and only detectable if you understand Christian and Biblical principles.

It’s an intellectual story, and a faith story, and an American story. It haunts me.

The question the story basically asks and tries to deal with, is: “How does the Christian deal with the prodigal who is neither repentant nor forthcoming? How does one respond rightly according to one’s faith, how does one live faith out in the face of such a rift and an apparent defiance? Is American Christianity big enough to contain the prodigal?”

Gilead clearly poses this question to challenge Christian culture. Life and family are messy and untidy. And faith is not meant to be contemplated in the abstract, but acted out in the messy trenches of life. Is one’s faith robust enough to endure and influence the heartaches and circumstances of real life?

What is so compelling about the novel is that the narrator’s journey has no closure or ultimate growth: the only way he “grows” is in awareness of his own failings and inability to cross the gulf between the faithful and the prodigal. The stigma against the prodigal is so strong, a ban that cannot be broken. The prodigal demands honesty, but the narrator baulks at it, and that gulf is never crossed effectively. In the narrator’s failure lies the failure of many Christians, which originates from the ongoing tension between knowledge and practice. It is a commentary on Christianity, and a prompt for believers to consider their ways, and how their practice can often just widen the gulf between believers and those outside who are seeking answers, honesty, and evidence.

This is the conflict within the story’s narrator, and he never really overcomes it. His (and the novel’s) conclusion is: when words fail, when there’s an uncrossable gulf, when all the instinct is to shun and to ignore — the only way to cross over is through grace. The only reconciliation that can be made is that of grace, and blessing; not just grace shown by the faithful towards the prodigal, but also grace shown by the prodigal towards the failings and weaknesses of the faithful.

This is challenging, and the novel is full of this struggle. Because grace is unfair and undeserved, even “wasteful”. It offends justice. But the heart from which grace grows is unconditional love, and extravagant forgiveness. This is the challenge in the novel that confronts the reader.

I don’t often read “Christian fiction”, but this is a wonderful Christian novel. I believe Robinson is not a Christian, and I respect how she is able to tell such a wonderful story, so raw and honest and real.

Robinson’s later novels, Home and Lila, both tell the stories of characters surrounding the events of Gilead. I bought Lila on a whim from the library used book sale, so I will get to it soon.

I can’t help but compare Gilead to Leif Enger’s luminous debut novel, Peace Like A River, which through a different story also deals with families, fathers and sons, a faithful father and a wayward prodigal, and the Christian faith in North America, and comes to the same conclusion of grace. Enger’s novel, especially its ending, was profoundly (but appropriately) dissatisfying because of this offensive grace; while Robinson’s novel had a neat conclusion, it challenged me just as much as Enger’s.

By the way, I highly recommend Peace Like A River. The writing is so brilliant it leaves longing and ache within me. I read it last year, and Enger has become one of my favourite authors as a result.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *