Back in the eighties I read "Housekeeping" by Marilynne Robinson. I remembered her excellence - crafting language with consummate skill. It was a novel about three generations of women and their quests for meaning and identity. There was a haunting beauty about that novel and that is what I mostly remembered.
And so I turned to her second novel - "Gilead" with hope and expectation that it would enthral me as "Housekeeping" had done thirty eight years ago. I finished reading it in peace and quiet at the top of our garden just yesterday evening.
Perhaps the fault was with me, but I am sad to report that I found "Gilead" pretty tiresome even though it won the Pulitzer prize for fiction back in 2005.
Essentially, the entire novel is a letter to a young son written by a rural clergyman in a small town in Iowa. He is very aware of his mortality and anticipates that death might be just round the corner. His wife, the boy's mother, is much younger than him.
The very notion that a father might write a two hundred and thirty page letter to a six year old son seemed quite absurd to me and I couldn't help feeling that The Reverend John Ames was suffering from an acute bout of self-importance. What he has to say to the boy isn't especially earth-shattering or wise. Gilead itself is a dull town on the prairie where nothing of real note has ever happened.
John Ames knows his Bible well and has sought to live a pious life, guided by the scriptures.. As you might imagine, biblical references figure significantly in his rambling address to the boy. As a lifelong atheist, I found the endless biblical references immensely tedious - belonging to a mindset that in everyday life is quite alien to me.
In Marilynne Robinson's defence, the words are as well-crafted as in "Housekeeping" and you can admire her linguistic artistry. It's just that for me the subject matter was underwhelming. It was difficult to care very much about the lives of the characters who inhabit this book. They live in obscurity and seem unremarkable.
Reading should be joyous and engaging but I was relieved when I reached the very last sentence of "Gilead":- "I'll pray and then I'll sleep." Phew!