Gilead by Marilynne Robinson

Week four: readers' responses

The strongest collective response to Marilynne Robinson's discussion of her novel Gilead at the Guardian book club was non-verbal. She was asked about the wife of the book's narrator, John Ames, a woman more than 30 years younger than her husband who arrives mysteriously in his life, and in his church. She is, as one reader noted, a "serene presence" in the novel, yet why was she also a character whose background has been made "so shadowy"? "She could step out of the shadows some day," ruminated the author. "I love her." At this, a hum and mutter of expectation spread through the audience. Robinson's most recent novel, Home, is a return to the characters of Gilead, telling the story of Ames's friend Boughton and his family. Was the author now signalling another volume in a sequence? Would we finally know Mrs Ames's back story? Everyone in the hall seemed to hope so.

Most of those who spoke about Gilead had read all of Robinson's novels, and several were intrigued by the relationship between Gilead and Home. Had the novelist foreseen the sequel as she wrote the earlier book? Not exactly – it was more that she had found herself "in mourning" for the characters she had created and had wanted to cure herself by bringing them back to life.

The narrator's religious faith was much discussed, either with puzzlement or identification. "Being a Baptist minister," said the first questioner of the evening, "I have a whole stash of sermons up in my attic" (like Ames). Robinson suspected that there were many such hoards. "This is a book that talks about religion to non-religious people in powerful ways," thought another reader, adding "it has reshaped my atheism." Robinson was asked about Barack Obama's championing of Gilead, and pointed out that she and the president belonged to the same church.

She was keen to correct some common assumptions about American Christians. Ames represented a certain "quietism" that was little represented – indeed, it was paradoxical to have him as the narrator of a bestselling novel, as he would flinch from advertising his faith. Faith is lost as well as asserted in the novel. One reader who said that she had just read Gilead for the fourth time to prepare her for the event spoke of how new things struck her on each reading. "What I found very interesting this time reading it was how late the revelation comes – and how obscure it is – that his father lost his faith late in life". She wondered why Robinson – "or perhaps Ames" – left that so late. Robinson made clear that it was indeed the character who held back on this, finding the fact painful to tell.

Does a novelist have to be wise to create a wise character? This seemed to be a question that several readers were asking. "Ames is passing on, to his son, the accrued wisdom of a lifetime. How do you go about beginning to create that voice?" The author confessed to have surprised herself by writing in a man's voice, but otherwise found that the creation of the character was dreamlike. If God "is seen in all his creation", can an author comparably be seen "in all the characters that she has created"? "Well, they don't come from anywhere else," observed Robinson. But then she added something else: that she had always felt the need to feel a good deal of sympathy for each one of her characters.

She told us that in her novel-in-progress she had for the first time created "a character I really don't like", but that this went against her usual practice. Attachment to her characters was felt as strongly by the readers as by the author. This seemed to be behind the apparently conflicting responses of the reader who celebrated the novel's humour, notably in its depictions of two elderly ministers respectfully contradicting each other, and the reader who thought Gilead and Home "two of the saddest books I have ever read". "That sense of sadness," he observed, "doesn't go away." Another found Gilead "meditative" rather than melancholy, but we all groped to explain something that every reader had found: this was a novel that made you read it slowly. That slowness was, we agreed, its most extraordinary quality.

• John Mullan is professor of English at University College London. Next week he will be looking at Spies by Michael Frayn.


John Mullan

The GuardianTramp

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