Gilhead by Marilynne Robinson (Virago)


“I told you last night that I might be gone sometime, and you said, Where, and I said, To be with the Good Lord, and you said, Why, and I said, Because I am old, and you said, I don’t think you’re old”.

SOME books ought to be read in a certain setting, this one might be an ageing country hotel with a bit of chintz and sherry, on a Sunday, perhaps if you have just been diagnosed with a terminal disease or are thinking of converting to Christianity or are just homesick for middle America.

Gilhead of the title is a town in Iowa. The Ames are its pastors. It is a pious town with pious children and pious families. We open morbidly with a letter from a dying father, a visit to a grave. In a sense this is an elegant discussion about piousness.

By coincidence the French writer Bernanos also gets a name check in this book as in the last review, this time for the Diary of a Country Priest written in 1936, two years before the pamphlet that inspired Lydie Salvayre.

Through the maudlin, gentle reminisce we get the odd gem of an anecdote, the day the tunnel fell in, the night the roof flew off the chicken shack, the stare of the one eyed grandfather, the pastor with a pistol in his belt.

For me this is the American novel. Or the novel America wants, the story America wants to read, a homage to other days, it is what writing, the writer, is for, you might argue where I would not, a custodian of memories.  Cover the American civil war through to the 1950s, explore ideas of religion and preaching through different generations – the father keeps all his old sermons in the attic – drop in a few timely anecdotes,  then this might be the perfect script. It has a fine, upstanding tone as in “there has been so much trouble in the world since then it is hard to think about Kansas”. 

It is all very respectable, worthy like a slow moving river and won a Pulitzer. I am troubled in that the narrator is man where the author is a woman… and it shows. There was no reason to change sex, in fact every reason not to, except I suppose women were not allowed to be pastors back in the day. More is the pity. That is a small detail for the compensations it might have yielded.


About drewsmith28

Words, words, words...
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