This is not a book review. This is a hymn, a praise. A conversation with a gushing friend, not a literary critic.
Regular people don’t give synopses or guess at author’s influences—they praise. This is because praise is the most fundamental human longing. Whether or not we are people of faith, our lives proceed from praise to praise, hobby to hobby, cause to cause. We are worshippers at heart. But so many things we praise fall short.
Dear reader, Gilead is not one of them. It is so devastating and beautiful that in my long life of reading ahead, I am uncertain that any book should ever surpass it. And if that, but few.
When I read Gilead, I despair. Fellow writers know what it is to read a published writer and to taste the truth that I can do better than that. But given 1,000 years on this earth, I doubt I or many others could even pretend to approach this kind of ability. Robinson’s prose displays a gift given but a few times in a century, discovered by even fewer.
Robinson’s brilliant 1980 novel Housekeeping was nominated for the Pulitzer. Later, she went on to teach at the Iowa Writer’s workshop, which puts the Ivy League writing programs to shame. And the years and decades passed with no new novel. Had the muse halted its visitation hours? Had Robinson moved on to essays?
It was worth the wait.
Little did we know, she was penning what would become—for Americans of faith—the great American novel. And for those who don’t share her faith, she’s still written one of the best novels in American history. Did I mention it won the Pulitzer?
Robinson’s faith brings long lost ingredients to a field that hasn’t tasted them for decades. Her prose and imagery and symbolism drip with the Bible, tradition, Melville, Calvin, the Eucharist, and baptism. She carries the sacred beauty of faith back to the world of literature, which has been systematically deprived of this language. Look at the personal faith of the Pulitzer winners for the last 50 years and you’ll understand just how secular the guild has become.
Even more surprising is a writer who can captivate and command the praises of conservative orthodox Christians and die-hard leftist literary postmoderns in the same work. True beauty transcends ideological partisanism.
I suppose I should write at least something about the book itself.
In Gilead we read a letter, even a diary, from an aged Reverend John Ames. He writes for his son who was born in Ames’s old age and won’t grow up with his father around. He is to read this as an adult.
But more than a letter, the book serves as a fictional memoir. In a letter you would expect advice, encouragement, and second person voice. This is something else, and it’s the most skillful and beautiful memoir I’ve ever read. The only reason it’s not memoir is that it’s fiction.
But functioning like a memoir, it enjoys the strengths of its genre. Memoir has a unique ability among all genres to speak to the human condition. To truth, to beauty, to tragedy and loss and love and life. Gilead is no mere book of fiction. It is a memoir that through tales lofty and low, in dust and glory, builds a manifesto of beauty. And God’s goodness.
Many great works plum along for the first 80 or 90%, leaving the reader to wonder why exactly the book might be a classic. Then the last fraction turns the work into an opus and we stagger, understanding the gravity.
Gilead is devastating and beautiful in every chapter. A blazing fire and light and brilliance and tempest, that the reader must shield their conscience, trembling with fear and hope that the book could possibly pull off the literary trick of transcending even its own beauty in the final pages.
I read the final part on a plane. Big mistake. The beauty shone through the liturgy of blessing so purely that I nearly begged no further beauty be shown. I was in public, dammit. But I could not stop, nor could I handle it. Robinson takes the simplest elements of life and builds an orchestra that shakes the walls of the mind’s capacity for beauty and meaning.
I’ve heard it said that when the London Philharmonic Orchestra first sight-read the opening to Beethoven’s famous 5th symphony, (you know the opening, “da da da duh”) they laughed aloud for its ridiculous simplicity. An orchestra is built on its opening lines. Beginning with a theme so simple must be a joke. A pun. There is nowhere to go for 40 minutes from such a simple melody.
But then they kept reading. And they laughed no more. And to this day, no single piece has captivated so much awe and reverence—save for maybe the same composer’s 9th symphony or Mozart’s 41st.
This is Gilead. Robinson does more with a bus stop bench than classic writers have with dynasties.
I pray you would read Gilead. I would even dare rouse you from a prayer, kiss your hand, and whisper “read Gilead.” I pray its weight would settle heavy on your brow and that you’d carry its beauty and blessing with you.
To answer the 3,000 year old question—
Oh, there is balm in Gilead.