It seems strange that an author with only five novels spanning a 30-year career could have left so deep a footprint in cultural thought as Marilynne Robinson. However, her recently completed Gilead series has an expansiveness which transcends its page-number and sets her apart from a majority of modern prolific writers. As deadline season approaches, I have found the care and pace of her writing to be almost meditative, and the following is my pitch so that hopefully you might too.
The series is made up of four novels: Gilead, Home, Lila, and Jack. Robinson refers to each as “siblings” rather than sequels, standing alone in their own right. Gilead takes the form of a letter written from the Reverend John Ames to his son in the rural town of Gilead, Iowa, and unpicks and meditates on moments of insight from throughout his life, faith, and relationships.
This more abstract string of thoughts runs alongside an unfolding plot as Ames and his lifelong friend Boughton deal with the return of Boughton’s prodigal son, Jack, who had previously left home in disgrace. We learn Jack’s character primarily through the imprint he has made on others, proving by nature to be the thorn in the side of everyone he encounters and the catalyst for emotional drama throughout the series. Free from reverence or superficiality, Jack is able to identify and manipulate cracks in Ames’ more traditionally pious pastoral exterior. When partnered with his own tortured but carefully considered faith, this makes him the perfectly sincere antagonist to test the limits of grace and redemption which Ames holds sacred. In fact, Jack’s tragic inability to find peace in the world and enigmatic depth of character alone is captivating enough to carry the entire Gilead series.
However, it does not need to; he is but one example of the morally complex, spiritually rich characters which typify Robinson’s writing. Her novels show that faith and doubt, love and isolation, transience and eternity run through the lives and hearts of every character regardless of their status of insider/outsider in the community. Every individual is characterised not just as a sum of external actions but as embodied souls with depth of thinking, each weighed down by unique burdens and histories.
Amidst her interweaving of the complex fates of each character, Robinson’s prose is beautifully simple. Critic James Wood describes her style as achieving ‘an almost holy simplicity’, something mirrored in the rural Iowan landscape of Gilead. Within this, Robinson has a remarkable gift for pausing to reflect on moments of beauty in the everyday, something which comes naturally as she remarks in one interview that ‘ordinary things have always seemed numinous to me’. She is able to view the world of ordinary experience from a seemingly detached, contemplative distance which allows her to illuminate and transfigure the wonderful strangeness of everyday things we take for granted. A perfect example is a brief, easily overlooked meditation on the miraculous concept of memory:
“Memory is not strictly mortal in its nature, either. It’s a strange thing, after all, to be able to return to a moment, when it can hardly be said to have any reality at all, even in its passing. A moment is such a slight thing, I mean, that its abiding is a most gracious reprieve.”
Nestled between paragraphs of plot exposition, every word here is careful and evocative, with many similar digressions lacing Robinson’s prose, bringing a thoughtful humanity to her characters. She takes fragments of existential questioning and wonder at the strangeness of existence, and instead of pushing them aside to press on with the demands of reality, fleshes them out into careful meditations. This is why no description of the Gilead series’ plot can do it justice; yes, it is the life story of a pastor from Iowa, but more importantly it is a dwelling on what is important in life, and what it means to be human.