Archive for July, 2007

‘There was even a bean salad, which to me looked distinctly Presbyterian’

There’s a word that I always forget. It has to do with the incalculable greatness a feeling can reach. It is the non-numerical equivalent of an integer, the amount in which something can be positive or negative, a significance steady but eminently communicative. I realized, as I always do, that the word I was trying to recall was ‘magnitude’. This word precisely connects to my admiration for this book. Gilead wields charm and mastery too elegant to term its journey ‘momentous’ or ‘significant’.

At first all seems to be as it should in the remains of the life of John Ames, a small-town preacher. But the humming gentleness gradually reveals, at its core, a chasm of uncertainty, feeding into rivulets leaving nothing outside their grasp. Robinson evokes, correctly and heartbreakingly, the antagonism resulting from proximity to the one person who can leave a stroke on the velvet of your heart.

If I never believed in Hemingway’s ‘perfect sentence’ even when I read The Old Man and the Sea, Gilead drives me almost to the finish line. Its narrative trickles gently at first, becoming a whitewash; its gait is best characterised not by waves but by the smooth, static prospect available in the air. I don’t mean that Ames’ voice is a passive one, or that he is solely a spectator, although many of the tenderest moments in the novel arise from his observations of his son, to whom the letter comprising the text is being written. In Hebrew, ‘gilead’ translates to ‘hill of testimony’ or ‘mound of witness’ and the emphasis on speech in the former is as well represented in the text as the interpretation of culminating events in the latter.

This book is an incredible pleasure to read. It proceeds with the ease and anticipation of a story being told by one very much beloved. Gilead reads softly, like a thread that never catches. Robinson’s prose effects a bank of pressure in the chest on each page. The character of John Ames is spoken in such a way which conveys at once his utter gentleness and the tricky backdrop of his history, full of vagaries whose incursions would be inevitable in any person’s life, but perhaps would not be limned to such delicate, yet potent effect in another person’s telling.