Tuesday, February 26, 2019

the last book I read

Gilead by Marilynne Robinson.

The Reverend John Ames is in his mid-seventies and nearing the end of his life (he has some unspecified heart condition and is also just, you know, old), and is getting to the stage of wanting to put his affairs in order. What this entails, in his particular case (and unusually for a man in his mid-seventies), is writing a letter to his seven-year-old son to be read after his death wherein he tries to provide some guidance for the boy and something to remember him by after his actual memories of his father fade.

So what's a respectable Reverend doing having a son in his late sixties, the randy old goat? Well, John Ames was married briefly in his twenties to a woman called Louisa, but she and their baby daughter died in quick succession shortly after the baby was born. Ames then immersed himself in his ministry, following in the footsteps of his father and grandfather, until meeting a woman called Lila (thirty-odd years his junior) when she came to one of his church services, and eventually marrying her, Doing A Sex at least once and having the boy (whose name I don't think we ever learn).

Ames has lived his whole life in Gilead, Iowa, which is fictional but is apparently based on the town of Tabor, a place with a population of a thousand or so in the southwestern corner of the state, and therefore withing hailing distance of Nebraska and Missouri. He has sustained a lifelong friendship with another local minister (I know, right, how many do they need) Robert Boughton, also a man in the twilight of his years. All Boughton's seven children are grown adults, but that's not to say that they don't still prove occasionally troublesome. And as it happens, as Ames is writing his letter Boughton has two of his adult children staying with him, slightly unexpectedly: daughter Glory and son Jack, who is actually named John Ames Boughton as a nod to Boughton's oldest and dearest friend.

Jack is the prodigal son, the black sheep of the family, and various other clich├ęs. He is also a well-read and thoughtful bloke, albeit of a sceptical nature, and keen to engage Reverend Ames in conversation on a variety of topics, not least the vexed question of whether his troubles were pre-ordained in some Calvinistic way, or whether he had a chance to be a good and respectable person and blew it by some wholly avoidable bad decision-making (and, by extension, which of those things would be worse). Part of the reason he's keen to engage Reverend Ames about it is that it's difficult to talk to his own father about it, for all the obvious reasons plus the fact that old Boughton's physical and mental health is starting to fail.

Among the things Jack tells Ames that he doesn't feel able to tell his own father are some of the details of the life he has temporarily fled in St. Louis; specifically, that he had a wife, Della, and a young son there. It's a bit more complicated than that, though, since Della is black. Not only does respectable white society (including most of Jack's prospective employers) take a dim view of this, so do Della's family, who view Jack as untrustworthy and do their best to warn him off.

Since old Boughton doesn't have much time left, Jack's siblings are on their way to pay their respects to the old man before he checks out. Jack is definitely not keen on a big family reunion and decides to head off before anyone else arrives, after a final conversation with Ames, who, having always been suspicious of Jack, finds himself warming to him even as he facilitates his flight from family responsibilities.

Gilead is a companion piece to Home, reviewed here in June 2016. The idea is that they describe essentially the same sequence of events from two different points of view. Home was centred mainly around Glory, but crucially was written in the third person; Gilead is presented as a letter from John Ames to his son and is therefore a first-person narrative. This makes it feel completely different, and introduces the possibility of Ames being an unreliable narrator. Not that he would ever lie, good Christian man and all, but there might be things that he omits out of a desire to shield the boy, or there might be stuff that he has just misinterpreted or misunderstood.

It's interesting to reflect on what we find out in Gilead that we didn't in Home; mainly a lot more detail about Ames' father and grandfather, a little (but only a little) about his relationship with his wife Lila, and, more surprisingly, a lot more about Jack's relationship with his wife Della, something that only really comes into focus right at the end of Home. As with Home this is a book shot through with religion, hardly surprisingly since both Robert Boughton and John Ames are ministers (although old Boughton was a much more peripheral figure in Home). Ames is clearly a good man, and after initially viewing Jack's return to the Boughton household with horror, warms to him over the course of the book as he learns more of his circumstances. Circumstances which of course are only difficult because of the institutional racism of 1950s America.

A first-person narrative of this sort is tricky to sustain without having the supposed writer of the narrative display implausible literary gifts or getting into awkward questions about how to bring about a plausible ending. It's very convincingly done, but it lends the book a slightly tight, stifling, claustrophobic quality, by contrast with Home which was written in a much more relaxed style and was therefore easier to read. John Ames, though obviously a man of compassion, and evidently softened somewhat in his old age by unexpectedly acquiring a wife and child, is still one of those slightly forbiddingly upright and austere religious types, whereas Glory and Jack, the main protagonists of Home, are a bit more flawed (considerably more so in Jack's case).

I suppose what I'm saying is that although Gilead might be the more impressive achievement from a literary standpoint, I found Home to be a more purely enjoyable read. Both are major works of 21st-century American fiction, though, and I would heartily recommend that you read them both. There is a third book, Lila, which as the title suggests focuses on John Ames' wife and overlaps with the narrative of the other two books.

Gilead won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2005; other Pulitzer winners on this list are The Bridge Of San Luis Rey, Foreign Affairs, A Thousand Acres, Independence Day and The Road. It also won the National Book Critics Circle Award in 2004; other winners here are Ragtime, A Thousand Acres and Wolf Hall.

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