Gilead by Marilynne Robinson review – the damaged heart of America

Ali Smith discovers a reminder about a nation’s liberal traditions together with a message of hope in Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead

by Marilynne Robinson
282pp, Virago, £14.99

The American writer Marilynne Robinson has been revered for years as the author whose astonishing debut, Housekeeping, published in 1981, was an instant classic. Written in a rich and distilled prose, this beautifully made story of two girls brought up by their drifter aunt in a small American town called Fingerbone, was mesmerising about the brevity of life and the seductive longevity of story. It focused on "the life of perished things", resaw convention as a gravely thin survival tactic, made a new mythology of transience and gave revitalised meaning to the conjunction of words like haunting and fiction.

Now, after 24 years, there's finally a second novel by Robinson, which has just won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Her only other books have been non-fiction - a collection of philosophical essays, The Death of Adam (2000) and a passionate polemic about Sellafield and the British nuclear industry, Mother Country (1989), in which she traced back to what she saw as its roots in British social history "the knowing and calculated contamination, by the British government for profit, of a populous landscape, with the most toxic substance known to exist on earth".

A new novel from a writer whose only other is a classic signals an unfair inevitability of comparison alongside a great deal to live up to. The two novels have a lot in common, in particular a shared concern for the way that children inexorably disappear into their own futures, and a fascination with mortality. Both novels are about outsiders and what happens to them socially.

But Gilead, a book about fathers and sons, where Housekeeping was a book about girls and women, and fragmentary where one of Housekeeping's achievements was its fluid narrative completeness, takes an opposing narratorial position with a protagonist whose insider credentials could not be stronger. In Genesis, in the story of Joseph, Gilead is the casually mentioned place left behind by the merchants who bought Joseph from his brothers. Robinson's Gilead is a small American town in Iowa in 1956. John Ames, a preacher in his mid-70s whose heart is failing him, is writing letters to his only child, now aged six, so that when the boy reaches an adulthood his father won't see, he'll at least have this posthumous one-sided conversation: "While you read this, I am imperishable, somehow more alive than I have ever been."

Ames is descended from preachers. He is old, vaguely Republican, delightfully lifeloving, sententious and irritatingly given to homily. He can on the one hand make water sound miraculous and on the other make a reader as nervous and fidgety as a long morning in church. He records, for his son, the details of an everyday life and his own stories of his pacifist father and abolitionist grandfather who could rouse a crowd to a "good" moral war; these stories are among the most vivid in the novel. Meanwhile, in the idyllic-seeming backwater, unaddressed and troubling issues of poverty and race emerge - though so gently as to be near invisible - especially when Ames's surrogate son, a traditional "bad lot", comes back to Gilead and circumstances invite comparison between 1950s social unacceptability and the abolitionist fervour of only a couple of generations ago. To say more here about the story would be to rip through something Robinson takes care to deliver with spider-web fineness.

Gilead reads like something written in a gone time. So much so that when Ames's child draws Messerschmitts and Spitfires, it is actually shocking. This is part of its purpose, to be a conscious narration to the future from someone whose time was different and is over. "I believe I'll make an experiment with candour here," Ames says in letters which will eventually reveal his own opacity, as Robinson discreetly disrupts the monology.

Ames loves to question words; so does Robinson, whose novel shifts in a moment from discussions about cliche to the uses of dissent, and whose protagonist is a man who, when America joined the first world war, burnt his only real rollicking anti-war sermon because "I knew the only people at church would be a few old women who were already about as sad and apprehensive as they could be and no more approving of the war than I was". The word "anger" figures a lot in a book careful never to rise to it. Instead, it's a delicate arraignment. "Maybe new wars have come along since I wrote this that have seemed brave to you. That there have been wars I have no doubt."

A book about the damaged heart of America, it is part vibrant and part timeworn, a slow burn of a read with its "crepuscular" narrator, its repetitions, its careful languidity. It is not the literary equivalent of Robinson's first novel, but then, times have changed, and Gilead, which seems in some ways almost to resent being a novel at all, is perhaps more closely akin to Mother Earth's "effort to break down some of the structures of thinking that make reality invisible to us", than to the gorgeously evoked absences of Housekeeping. Not the most immediately prepossessing of subjects, it is not the most immediately prepossessing of novels.

But in Gilead, Robinson is addressing the plight of serious people with a calm-eyed reminder of the liberal philosophical and religious traditions of a nation whose small towns "were once the bold ramparts meant to shelter peace", citing a tradition of intellectual discursiveness and a historical cycle that shifts from radical to conservative then back to radical again, and presenting, as if from the point of view of time's own blindness, an era when unthinkable things were happening but were themselves about to change unimaginably, for the better. It takes issue with the status quo by being a message, across generations, from a now outdated status quo. "What have I to leave you but the ruins of old courage, and the lore of old gallantry and hope?" Things can and will change; they have before, and they will again.


Ali Smith

The GuardianTramp

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