Like the novels of Kazuo Ishiguro, Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead is an impressive feat of literary ventriloquism. Robinson gets into the mind of her narrator, 76-year-old Iowa preacher John Ames, and tells his story through him. Unlike the rather dry and unexciting works of Ishiguro, the story told her manages to be both compelling and well-written.
That’s not to say it is a whirlwind adventure story. It’s not. But as a near-death John Ames writes a letter to his still very young son (the happy product of a late marriage to a younger woman) the reader sees how outside events change the nature of Ames’ letter, as by necessity he leaves his chosen subjects to explain the tragic life of his godson and namesake.
In its early stages, before the interruption occasioned by John Ames Boughton, the Reverend provides a family history for his son, filled with tales of his grandfather and father, the former an eccentric pro-war Abolitionist, and the latter a pacifist who was ashamed of his father’s violent past. These stories, which include some humorous set pieces involving the grandfather’s days as a settler trying to keep Kansas a free state, are rendered that much more amusing through being told in the straightforward, eminently respectable tone of the Rev. Ames.
Gilead is a novel about a deeply religious man, and as such some delving into theology is to be expected. As a decidedly non-religious person I obviously found some quarrel with certain passages, but I will say that it never felt as though Robinson herself was proselytizing or even arguing for position. It was merely a necessary function of the character. Even at his most dogmatic, the Rev. Ames comes across as a likable and good-hearted man.
The narrator’s religious interludes do slow down the text for a good portion of the middle of the novel, but the reader is compelled to the end by the understated drama surrounding the arrival in town of Ames’ godson, the prodigal son of his best friend. John Ames Boughton, aka Jack, is a ne’er-do-well whose mysterious disappearance informs the central plot of the novel. As his stay in town lengthens, Ames’ letter becomes less and less a letter to his son and more obviously a relation of the events of Jack’s past.
A ventriloquist act is about more than just simple competence. If the jokes aren’t funny people tend not to care whether or not the ventriloquist’s lips are moving. In Gilead, Marilynne Robinson never moves her lips, and most of the time she’s also writing a great novel.
(Note: A follow-up novel, Home, tells Jack Boughton’s story from his perspective and his sister Glory’s. I have ordered that from Amazon and will hopefully be reading and reviewing it shortly.)