Magazine article The Spectator

Looking Back without Anger

Magazine article The Spectator

Looking Back without Anger

Article excerpt

Looking back without anger GILEAD by Marilynne Robinson Virago, £14.99, pp. 282, ISBN 1844081478 £12.99 (plus £2.25 p&p) 0870 800 4848

Marilynne Robinson is an anomaly in modern American fiction. While its leading practitioners have, for decades, produced novels flavoured with brash sexuality and dark humour, and produced them with tireless, macho verve (Roth and Updike account for around 70 books between them), Robinson has gained a vast reputation thanks solely to Housekeeping, a slim, unfashionable novel published nearly 25 years ago.

Gilead, her second novel, is likely to maintain that reputation. Set in 1956, it takes the form of a long letter from John Ames, a 76-year-old Iowa preacher who is dying of heart disease, to his only son, who is six. The letter is Ames's attempt to bequeath to his son a distillation of a lifetime's quiet reflection and, in doing so, present a picture of his family's history. Ames's grandfather was a preacher of the old school, a craggy civil war veteran whose rifle was never far from reach. His son, also a preacher, was a pacifist and an orthodox Christian. Ames himself is more thoughtful than his forebears, willing to question Scripture and to admit that he remains unsatisfied with some of the answers he has found. For him, though, any elusiveness is caused by man's inferiority, his ultimate inability to comprehend God.

But Ames is not blinkered; it is only at the outer reaches of the most complicated questions that he concedes defeat. Before then he takes his mind as far as it will go, occasionally getting tied in knots but frequently expressing many finely wrought sentiments about love, forgiveness and death. …

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