There are two groups of readers who can feel blessed by the arrival of Marilynne Robinson’s incandescent second novel, Gilead — those who remember where they were when they first fell in love with Housekeeping, her breathtaking 1980 debut, and everyone else.
The good news is that while keeping her own counsel for so extended a leave from fiction, the 61-year-old author has lost none of the clarity and plain-spoken grace with which she previously made her prairie-prone American characters shimmer. Instead, she has found a creative solution to the eternal novelistic challenge of moving her story forward while simultaneously anchoring her players deeper in the immovable bedrock of their penitent, essential selves.
In Gilead, set in mid-1950s Iowa and narrated by an aging minister in failing health, Robinson uses a first-person voice, as she did in Housekeeping (where it belonged to a clear-eyed girl talking directly to readers). But this new storyteller isn’t speaking to us; rather, Rev. John Ames’ reflections appear in the form of a long letter meant for the 7-year-old son born of his much younger second wife, a gift (and confession) to be read after the death of a father who won’t be around to see his boy grow up. The old man tells of family history (tracing back to his abolitionist grandfather), regrets, pleasures, and an edgy relationship — for reasons slowly revealed — with Jack Boughton, the adult son of a close friend and fellow pastor. Yet as Robinson rolls out Ames’ epistle in waves of reminiscence, religious reflection, and acute observation of the natural world, she also turns every reader into the intended recipient of this intimate stocktaking.
Gilead builds in suspense, particularly as the relationship between Ames (a believer) and young Boughton (a doubter) becomes clear; the spiritual import also intensifies, at times with a conviction and directness that carries its own shock value. Those with biblical knowledge (of Hagar, Ishmael, and Gilead itself and the balm to be found there) may luxuriate in this modestly magnificent book as a psalm worthy of study, a sermon of the loveliest profundity. But truly, a concordance isn’t necessary to read and reread Robinson’s new novel for the literary miracle that it is.