Thursday, April 9, 2009
Book Look Review "Gilead"
Sometimes you read a novel that is a masterpiece. This is the kind of book I really enjoy with a profound message sketched lightly in effortless prose. I read with a renewed love for the irreplaceable experience of language used beautifully. Marilynne Robinson uses no extra lines or wasted paint to distract us from her subject, but selects words from her palette to create an unforgettable artistic experience.
In the foreground of this pastoral painting stand a small family in plain clothing we remember from fifty years past. A seven year old boy is posed awkwardly between his young mother and much older father. The pale child is obviously cherished by these oddly mismatched parents. His mother is like a small brown bird captured for a moment but eager to retreat to the background. The gray haired, gray skinned aging father has the serious upright carriage of a preacher. He is the Reverend John Ames and the thoughtful narrator of this family tale. The child gazes up at his father, a bit bewildered as if he can’t quite understand this central figure.
A prodigal son figure sits nearby gazing down a winding road toward the town of Gilead, Iowa on the horizon. This returning man, Jack Boughton, creates a feeling of tension lurking behind the family. We wonder why he has intruded on this family portrait and if his intensions are good or evil. He surrounds himself with small children splashing about in a stream while he keeps the town in his view.
Men with long black shadows from the Ames family past fill the background scene. One angry man is twisted to confront others in Civil War uniforms. A father and son appear to be at war with each other but time has softened and faded their expressions and we are not quite able to make them out. They seem to be seeking something - is there balm in Gilead?
As we close the book and walk away, we are compelled to turn back for one last glimpse, a final thoughtful gaze before leaving. We forget we are gazing at a work of art and believe we are looking through a window at a real town, a real family. This to me is the mark of a great novel. And as with all experiences with a masterpiece it has lifted us out of our ordinary experiences and left us with something extraordinary.