by Marilynne Robinson

Beautiful. Poignant. Heartrending. Melancholic. Intimate. Overwhelmingly touching. Spiritually uplifting. There is a ton of adjectives I could ascribe to Gilead, but I think these should suffice.

Gilead is a fictional town in Iowa where Reverend John Ames, now in the twilight of his years, has been a pastor for the larger part of his life. As he feels that he has nearly come to the end of his life’s journey, he writes a series of journal entries meant as a long letter for his young son. In his narrative, he speaks of the many years of his being a minister, his relationship with his father and grandfather, his first marriage and family, his deep connection with and love his second wife Lila, and his relationship with his namesake.

The slow and seemingly plotless narrative may turn off an impatient reader who may ask, where is all this going? Admittedly, the stories were told in no specific order; it is as if Reverend Ames plucked them one at a time from memory, his remembrances perhaps stirred by a recent event or an important person. But despite the apparent lack of cohesiveness of the narrative, the beautiful and quiet prose will engage you. The loveliness of the words will elicit sighs, provoke tears, and break hearts. I know, because I felt all those.


I am not a strictly religious person. The role of “strictly religious” I have personally bestowed upon my paternal grandparents, who were both active parishioners and Catechism teachers up until their final years, when their physical condition imposed severe restrictions on their everyday habits. But I am a practising Catholic, and I grew up earnestly imbibing the doctrines and teachings of the Catholic Church: I attended Catholic schools from grade school up until college (and law school), and my parents tried their best to raise me and my sibling in the faith. So while I may not exactly follow in the footsteps of my grandparents, the Catholic teachings are deeply ingrained in me, all of which I try my best to faithfully observe and live out.

The theological aspects of Gilead are rich and meaningful, and will not escape the discerning reader, even if he is by no means a religious or spiritual person. As a minister, Rev. Ames wrote sermons, preached every Sunday, and attended to the needs of his congregation, yes, but intertwined with his spiritual persona – and definitely not to be forgotten – there was also the individual – the one with the flaws, human emotions, and social instincts. Save for certain restrictions in doctrine and religion (particularly for the Catholic Church), the presentation of Rev. Ames as a whole person – both as man of the cloth and an individual – serves as a reminder and an example that the duties ascribed to these roles are not mutually exclusive. Religion aside, I am able to appreciate that.

The Seven Sacraments img src

The significance of the Ten Commandments and the sacraments (particularly baptism and communion) were also discussed in the novel, albeit in less stringent tones than is required than if, say, they were to be taught in Catechism class. Baptism and communion are blessings - God's blessings given through His human instrument - the priest - and I loved how they were depicted in everyday, mundane things. Do you remember the gospel of the Prodigal Son? I have known and repeatedly heard it since childhood, but after reading Gilead, I have attributed a more meaningful take on that old story. Suddenly, I embrace the tale of the prodigal son with more fervor and heart.


Gilead spoke of relationships: father and son, husband and wife, minister and his flock, man and his namesake. While the last one undeniably does not come along very often, I found, however, that this particular relationship – the one between Rev. Ames and his namesake, John Ames “Jack” Boughton, the son of his best friend – was the most touching and meditative one highlighted in the novel. That they should be namesakes - there are so many other names that the elder Boughton could have given his son, but no, it had to be "John Ames" - is not a meaningless exercise. And their relationship demonstrated all human emotions possible: love, hate, jealousy, resentment, devotion, acceptance, generosity.

And they had the most beautiful, heartrending blessing scene. Ever.

“And he took his hat off and set it on his knee and closed his eyes and lowered his head, almost rested it against my hand, and I did bless him to the limit of my powers, whatever they are, repeating the benediction from Numbers…. Nothing could be more beautiful than that, or more expressive of my feelings, certainly or more sufficient, for that matter…Then he sat back and looked at me as if he were waking out of a dream.”

I finished reading this novel at a coffee shop. I managed to blink back the tears in my eyes but miserably failed to rein in the tumult of emotions I felt as soon as I closed my copy. Gilead is beautiful.

Book Details: My own, trade paperback, bought from Fully Booked BHS
Rating: ★★★★★


Anonymous said…
Waaah! I got teary-eyed all over again. I'm so glad to see those stars. I've been quite pushy about Gilead and I'm happy that a lot of our friends are enjoying it. :')
Monique said…
BUDDY: I got distracted from this by Jonathan Strange, that's why I'm glad, too, that I was able to appreciate it for its worth. :)

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