Book review: Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson

originally posted elsewhere: March 22, 2010

tl;dr: Prepare to be moved, and keep the Kleenex close at hand...

Poignant, heart-rending, intimate, deeply moving - Gilead is all of these things and so much more. A richly deserving winner of the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, Gilead is a brilliant execution of what most readers would consider to be a potentially boring premise: an epistolary novel from a dying pastor to his young son in a dying 1950s Iowa small town. The momentous, historical events in the novel are described in recollection, and the present day plot is far from a potboiler. Yet Gilead succeeds brilliantly.

Marilynne Robinson succeeds because she delves very deeply into the mind and heart of her main subject, the small-town pastor. He is a true-believer Christian, even in the face of skepticism, agnosticism and atheism from his older brother and his namesake godchild, and his own father's abandonment of the Iowa small town. One of the most moving aspects of Gilead is the pastor's many examples and descriptions of Christian love, and how he reconciles events and people's behavior with the Christian belief system.

A book cover with the title and author's name, featuring an image of a portion of a nearly entirely faded-to-white door, with traces of yellow, green, and blue

But Gilead is much more than an obvious choice for the Christian book-of-the-month club. Beneath the pastoral setting of small-town Iowa life, there are many struggles and conflicts. Surprisingly, considering the epistolary novel format, Robinson is able to explore them in considerable depth. It helps that the main character is someone to whom people open their hearts and confess their sins, and is also someone given to reflection and concern about others. But mostly it is due to Robinson's considerable skills as an author.

Gilead is just Robinson's second fictional book, after a gap of a quarter century. Given the care with which it was written, and the craftsmanship exhibited throughout, it appears that Robinson has been working on it for quite some time. I am glad that the Pulitzer committee gave it the recognition that it deserves, and I hope that more people read Gilead. It is an excellent example of what an out-of-the-ordinary novel can achieve.