In the Bible, the balm of Gilead is a rarity, yearned for in vain. In the gospel song, it flows copiously, making the wounded whole and healing sin-sick souls. Both properties are true of Marilynne Robinson's second novel, Gilead. Long-awaited and altogether unlike any other work of fiction (even her own), it has sprung forth more than 20 years after Housekeeping with what I can only call amazing grace. It is as spare, and as spiritual, a novel as I think I have ever encountered. Yet reading it is enough to inspire missionary fervor: You must read this book.
At the risk of sounding like the kind of mawkish evangelical who could not be further from the narrative voice of the novel, which belongs to a 76-year-old minister in Gilead, Iowa, in 1956, I can even tell you that Gilead will make you cry—certainly by the time John Ames, near death and the end of the diary/letter he is writing for his 7-year-old son, reflects this way on the vale of tears: "Augustine says the Lord loves each of us as an only child, and that has to be true: 'He will wipe the tears from all faces.' It takes nothing from the loveliness of the verse to say that is exactly what will be required."
It detracts not at all, I hope, from the grave loveliness of Robinson's prose and the lucid profundity of John Ames' reflections, religious and secular, to say that the novel is suffused with emotional suspense that makes a reader's heart say, as the Rev. Ames hears his ailing one thump, "Again, again, again." Don't be daunted by one bemused reviewer's remark that it is "a beautiful book of ideas," not a novel at all; don't be deterred by James Wood's astute review, in which he observes early on that Robinson has composed "a pious, even perhaps a devotional work" and then marvels at its "processional pace." Gilead is gripping. I will resort to a cliché with a suitably Christian echo to emphasize what even the most laudatory critics may well fail to convey: You will hang on every word.
What Robinson has written is, in fact, a mystery—not merely a spiritual meditation on the mystery of God's grace, that "absolute disjunction between our Father's love and our deserving," as Ames phrases it at one point, but a literary, and a literal, mystery. At first you don't suspect it, disarmed as you are likely to be by the almost otherworldly transparency of Ames' delivery—"I don't write the way I speak. … I don't write the way I do for the pulpit either. … I do try to write the way I think. …"—and by the rigorous, virtuous self-scrutiny and the family history he puts down for eventual perusal by the son born of his late, unlikely marriage to a woman young enough to be his daughter. (She is younger, in fact, than the actual daughter Ames briefly had, before the newborn baby died along with her mother, his first wife, a half century earlier.)
But on Page 18, a pebble is thrown into the reflective pool—and it is the absence of immediate ripples that disturbs the narrative. Ames interrupts his family ruminations with the passing mention of a name, which catches him off-guard. "She told me Jack might be coming home, too," he reports hearing from the daughter of Boughton, his best friend and fellow aging minister (a Presbyterian). "It actually took me a minute to think who that was." Ames then quickly picks up a different thread of thought. By now we know that this is a man on whom very little is lost, so his forgetfulness and his refusal to pause register as a quiet—yet for that reason a crucial—clue that we, and he, are on the trail not simply of memory but of a mystery.
Fifty pages pass before it is revealed that Jack is John Ames Boughton, "my namesake." Ames' godson and Boughton's son, he is a boy who "caused so much disappointment without ever giving anyone any grounds for hope … the lost sheep, the lost coin. The prodigal son, not to put too fine a point on it." Again Robinson, as deft as any architect of detective fiction, heightens not just suspense but suspicion: "I suppose I might tell you a story about him, too, or as much of it as behooves me," Ames comments, and then adds, "Another time. I must reflect on it first." Robinson makes the reader wait and wonder: Just how reliable a version of events will this man, so virtuous thus far, reveal?
In fact, Ames is an utterly reliable narrator, not least because he is aware of how fallible a narrator he is, despite his efforts in life—and in this letter—to keep asking what he calls at one point the "obvious question": "What is the Lord asking of me in this moment, in this situation?" It is a question to which human creatures are all too often oblivious, he is well aware, and the quest Robinson expertly spins out is the meditative minister's halting discovery of his own blind spot.
It would destroy the suspense to reveal what he finds. But I hope it will rouse curiosity to say that for Ames, the ultimate revelation comes from outside his own clan (though he plumbs the secrets of his preacherly forebears, a fiery grandfather who briefly harbored John Brown in his church, and a pacifist father). What he learns involves his prodigal godson, which is right in step with the book's central theme—the knotted bonds of paternity.
In a novel haunted by the parallel between God and his flock and parents and their children, perhaps it goes without saying that the dilemma Ames wrestles with is not merely a personal drama. The Reverend, of all people, is acutely aware of the larger spiritual arc that encompasses his own twilight struggle to come to terms with Jack. He devotes a sermon to it, in fact, noting "that Abraham himself had been sent into the wilderness, told to leave his father's house also, that this was the narrative of all generations, and that it is only by the grace of God that we are made instruments of His providence and participants in a fatherhood that is ultimately His."
Don't be deterred by that sermonic wisdom either, which actually points toward yet another layer of mystery. What adds to the irresistible pull of Ames' story, as I read it, is that Robinson also plants hints throughout his narrative that Ames is indeed an instrument of God's providence in a way that he never sees, but that we sense. Again, I don't want to ruin the suspense. But I think Robinson tempts us to believe—to want to believe—that Ames, the godfather, has been granted a chance in this world to wash away an unforgivable sin committed by that son of his. Ames seized it unawares years before Jack's recent return and in doing so was belatedly blessed with a beloved wife and child—a joy magnified by his sense that it is unbidden, undeserved. What elicits tears at the book's close, I think, is a highly unusual literary experience: Robinson (in her role as author of this creation) allows even a faithless reader to feel the possibility of a transcendent order, thanks to which mercy can reign among people on Earth.
If you have finished the book, and want to compare your reading with mine, I ruin the suspense by spelling out just what I think Robinson is hinting at here. Everyone else, go up into Gilead, and take balm. It will not be in vain.