I have had this book in my TBR pile for absolutely ages and though it has won awards such as the Pulitzer (which I prefer to the Man Booker in general) and been praised by family, friends and some bloggers it has never quite sold itself to me when it actually comes to starting a new book. There are a few reasons for this that I can think one was that it doesn’t have chapters (which really put me off The Road but actually didn’t matter) and I like a break now and again. The other, more important, reason was that I didn’t like the look of the subject matter. Firstly it’s the letter of a dying man, and secondly it’s got a very religious theme which always makes me wary. I have nothing against religion, I am not religious myself though and don’t like ‘preachy books’. I was beginning to think this might be much more for my catholic Non Reader.
However knowing that I am going to be reading the Orange Shortlist over the next two weeks in the lead up to the winner being announced and knowing that Marilynne’s nominated book Home is in there and is a sequel and prequel and companion (confused much - I am) to Gilead I thought I should give it a go. There of course a big worry for me which was ‘if Gilead is rubbish how on earth am I going to get on with Home’? I opened it admittedly with quite a lot of trepidation…
Gilead is a novel which is in fact the letter of dying Reverend John Ames to his son written in Gilead, Iowa in 1956. Knowing that he will not be around for much longer and will not be able to tell his son of his ‘begats’ and family history he decides that he will write it all down for him. It’s his final testament if you will for his son ‘who may not remember me in the future’. Now you would be thinking that with a novel like this there isn’t going to be much joy, however actually despite there being no particular storyline this is really a book filled with the celebration of life. As John Ames memoirs come in stops and starts and have no particular structure you are given insight into the memories of an everyday man as he makes his way in the world and the trials and tribulations along the way.
I admit I was worried for the first 40 or so pages that this was going to be a beautifully written but ultimately boring read. Indeed was almost certain my ‘if you don’t like it by page 80 put it down’ rule was going to come into play but it didn’t. Page 80 was suddenly 20, 40, 60 pages behind me and the prose was taking me along with it on its meandering delightful journey. Robinson’s prose is possibly some of the most beautifully written prose I have the pleasure of turning pages too and undoubtedly is what kept me going to what is quite an ending (that is all I will say about the ending) and the final page.
Now it’s rare that a book can make me emotional but this one did. I don’t know if it’s because I myself have looked after someone who is terminally ill or just the prose and the way Robinson puts you into the mind of a dying man but passages such as this set me off.
“Just now I was listening to a song on the radio, standing there swaying to it a little, I guess, because your mother saw me from the hallway and she said, ‘I could show you how to do that.’ She came and put her arms around me and put her head on my shoulder, and after a while she said, in the gentlest voice you could ever imagine, ‘Why’d you have to be so damn old?’
I ask myself the same question.”
Was the religion in the book preachy? No not at all I actually found it quite insightful and thought provoking. There is a lot of debate over religion and war and how each affects the other and how divided people of the same faith can be over religious involvement, backing or prohibiting war can be. If this doesn’t sound like your cup of tea I would say give it a go and see how Robinson can change your mind with her prose. I will admit the book is slightly too long at 282 pages and occasionally I found that John Ames was repeating anecdotes or statements more than once. If stunning prose and subtle observations of life over none stop plot and all the fireworks is your thing then this is definitely the book for you. I am going to say I sit on the fence.
Having the knowledge that Home is now out you can see that the clues are very much there in Gilead that it was planned as Boughton is always being discussed mentioning his children are ‘home’ or are coming ‘home’. Part of me wonders if Robinson’s idea is to eventually write the life of all the inhabitants of Gilead. I would like to give Robinson’s Housekeeping a go as that sounds like it has a fascinating storyline. If Home has the prose of Gilead then I think that there isn’t really any competition in the Orange shortlist… I will be able to tell you within the next two weeks.
Do you prefer plot over prose? Have any of you read Housekeeping? I would ask you if you have read Home but as I haven’t yet I don’t want anyone giving anything away!