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Gilead (Unabridged)
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84 of 86 people found the following review helpful
on 12 January 2006
Gilead is a superb novel. It's a book that grows in stature and interest as it proceeds - it is the journal of a man who is coming to the end of his life, written specifically for his young son. His son is the child of a second marriage - his first wife and child died - and he married his much younger second wife late, and so is an old man (77) with a young son (nearly 7). As the journal progresses, he tells stories of his relationship with his own father, and of his grandfather - three generations of church ministers, the grandfather having been involved in the Civil War, the father an ardent pacifist, the narrator trying to come to terms with his own life and what will happen when he dies. The strength of the book is in the power of this narrative - the relationships that are evoked by the understated but beautiful prose of the journal, and the man's own wrestling with his inner life as well as the life and lives going on around him. A specific story emerges, and the book becomes very moving in unexpected ways. There is a lot of Christian theology, and yet because of the main focus of the narrative, this is interesting and pertinent, and should not put off those who have no interest in religion - odd to have so much theology at the centre of a novel, but it's a very human take on theology, and the open-mindedness of the narrator gives a richness and thought-provoking depth to ideas about belief in God and practical issues of being human. I found it a very subtle book, and one that slowly enthralled me. There is very little dialogue, because of the nature of the narrative, but it never becomes monotonous. It is like a meditation on the nature of father and son relationships, yet written by a woman - I found it quite extraordinary, and definitely to be recommended to anyone looking for a slower, more thoughtful read. Anyone who has read Marilynne Robinson’s previous novel, the beautiful Housekeeping, will surely not be disappointed.
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40 of 42 people found the following review helpful
on 30 November 2004
"Gilead" is Marilynne Robinson's second novel, written more than 20 years after "Housekeeping," which drew much critical acclaim as well as the 1981 PEN/Hemingway Award. "Gilead" takes the form of a long letter written in 1956 by a dying 76-year-old pastor to his 7-year-old son in the small town of Gilead, Iowa. The novel is very leisurely paced (think of Wendell Berry at his most leisurely) and meanders down the side roads of memory and reverie--telling a few tall tales, recounting the strange exploits of the narrator's firebrand abolitionist grandfather, and dwelling on the occasional theological issue (the narrator has wrestled much of his life with the humanist theology of Ludwig Feuerbach, a struggle made easier for the narrator by the works of Karl Barth). Being a slow-building, character-based novel, there is no plot to speak of in "Gilead." However, the story ultimately addresses the theme of the prodigal son and ends with a touching and nearly-unexpected poignancy. This is a thoughtful and deeply religious novel by a top literary talent: beautiful, if not a pinnacle work of the genre like Bo Giertz's "The Hammer of God."
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33 of 35 people found the following review helpful
on 6 August 2007
An extraordinary book, even just in formal terms. Others have commented here on the human side of things (which I found very moving), but I'd add something about story-telling here. Like John McGahern's amazing 'That They May Face the Rising Run' (his last novel), 'Gilead' is astonishing in how the reader glimpses small scenes and fragments of the past almost subliminally, scenes which are then seen again, still from afar. It makes the reader lean in towards the story, peering closely, as if saying, 'what was that? Did I really see THAT?' So the story relies on reluctance, tact, and half-recalled things, and things of loveliness or disturbance glimpsed at the edge of life. Others have done this ('Beloved', so movingly), but Robinson is really wonderful at the fleetingness of things. I've rarely felt I've had to quietly attend to small things, as when leaning in towards this book. It's simply a marvel of technique. And most strange that she might have learned this art from the short lyric poems of George Herbert.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on 22 June 2010
I had read 'Home' first, in which there is quite an overlap in time frame with 'Gilead', specifically the long awaited return of Jack Boughton told by his sister Glory, and actually I enjoyed Gilead more for having had the other perspective first. The structure is an unusual one, and the lack of chapter breaks makes it a tricky one to pick up and put down, but despite this and the much commented-on lack of plot, it is the sheer beauty, you could almost say poetry, of the writing that carries this amazing work. There is such poignancy in the way the old man tells his story, so much awareness of the limitations of his life, I only wish we could have been given some glimpse of how the letter is received by Robby when he grows up. Maybe that'll be the next volume. The other big thing for me as a City dweller from a different part of the world was the evocation of the landscape, the endless plains, the dust, nothing happening - and the evocative, and in the case of the horse falling into the pit, totally baffling scenes that could only be that place and time. Stunning.
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9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
Gilead is a novel which is in fact the letter of dying Reverend John Ames to his son written in Gilead, Iowa in 1956. Knowing that he will not be around for much longer and will not be able to tell his son of his `begats' and family history he decides that he will write it all down for him. It's his final testament if you will for his son `who may not remember me in the future'. Now you would be thinking that with a novel like this there isn't going to be much joy, however actually despite there being no particular storyline this is really a book filled with the celebration of life. As John Ames memoirs come in stops and starts and have no particular structure you are given insight into the memories of an everyday man as he makes his way in the world and the trials and tribulations along the way.

I admit I was worried for the first 40 or so pages that this was going to be a beautifully written but ultimately boring read. Indeed was almost certain my `if you don't like it by page 80 put it down' rule was going to come into play but it didn't. Page 80 was suddenly 20, 40, 60 pages behind me and the prose was taking me along with it on its meandering delightful journey. Robinson's prose is possibly some of the most beautifully written prose I have the pleasure of turning pages too and undoubtedly is what kept me going to what is quite an ending (that is all I will say about the ending) and the final page.

Now it's rare that a book can make me emotional but this one did. I don't know if it's because I myself have looked after someone who is terminally ill or just the prose and the way Robinson puts you into the mind of a dying man but passages such as this set me off.
"Just now I was listening to a song on the radio, standing there swaying to it a little, I guess, because your mother saw me from the hallway and she said, `I could show you how to do that.' She came and put her arms around me and put her head on my shoulder, and after a while she said, in the gentlest voice you could ever imagine, `Why'd you have to be so damn old?'
I ask myself the same question."

Was the religion in the book preachy? No not at all I actually found it quite insightful and thought provoking. There is a lot of debate over religion and war and how each affects the other and how divided people of the same faith can be over religious involvement, backing or prohibiting war can be. If this doesn't sound like your cup of tea I would say give it a go and see how Robinson can change your mind with her prose. I will admit the book is slightly too long at 282 pages and occasionally I found that John Ames was repeating anecdotes or statements more than once. If stunning prose and subtle observations of life over none stop plot and all the fireworks is your thing then this is definitely the book for you. I am going to say I sit on the fence.
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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on 10 July 2010
Well it's had praise heaped upon it. Like a Rothko painting, this book has the power to induce religious experience in the susceptible. Like a Rothko painting, in the non-susceptible it has the power to induce a feeling of mild bemusement. A sense of what's the point?

And if I had to pick a side, I'd go for the religious experience, hardened atheist that I am. Robinson's prose is as deceptively simple as Rothko's composition, but like Rothko, it's the gaps between the shapes that create the emotional impact.

The story's simple: John Ames, elderly preacher for the small town of Gilead looks back upon his life, his reminiscences sparked by watching his son and much younger wife go about their daily lives. Small stuff, simply told, but it's the gaps that tell the story. Ames' excursions into the past, his thoughts about the members of his congregation, his occasional commentary on the Bible and the messages he believes are contained therein complement each other, but never overlap. We as readers are allowed to assemble Ames' story through what he doesn't tell us, as much as what he does. We're allowed to form a picture of his faults, his transgressions, his strengths, his beliefs through the flow of his narrative, through the things he chooses to pass along to his son. In this respect, Gilead deserves the accolades it has received. Reading it engenders a sense of peace and refreshment very similar to the effect of spending an hour or two in the company of Rothko or Pollock and in today's busy world, that's rare enough.
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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on 2 July 2009
After all the glowing tributes on the cover I hesitate, as a mere mortal, to criticise this book. But for me its structure - a memoir-letter from father to son - is too constricting. I know it is a book of ideas, but in that case why not write a book on philosophy?

The consequence of the format is that it is all 'telling' and no 'showing'. And the author has to stretch the format to its elastic limit when incorporating events at which the narrator was not present.

All the way through I wanted to break out and 'see' some of the events referred to. (To that extent it reminded me of Jonathan Coe's 'The Rain Before It Falls', in which an artificial structure - an old lady reminiscing whilst looking at a pile of photographs - becomes frustrating to the reader.)

I also found it stretched belief that this 76 year-old man could possibly have remembered all the detail of past events to which he makes reference in an almost 300-page letter he has only just started to write at the beginning of the book.

As the narrator says: "I've probably been boring a lot of people for a long time." I came close to abandoning this book.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on 25 March 2009
This is the first book I have read by this author. It's a gentle book with some very astute observations. I found it amusing - laugh aloud a couple of times. This is not a book for a reader who enjoys a fast moving plot.

I do recommend it, with the proviso that a reader doesn't expect any sudden revelations!
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38 of 45 people found the following review helpful
TOP 500 REVIEWERon 8 January 2008
Part of the point of being in a book group is being exposed to books you never would have picked up on your own accord. In the best cases, you get wonderful surprises that leave you stunned and happy. In the case of my book group, this has meant some top notch stuff such as Jose Saramago's Blindness or Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go, both of which I loved and would never have picked up on my own. Of course, the flip side is that you can spend precious hours of life reading something utterly awful -- and of the 75+ books I've read for my book group, this was undoubtedly the absolute worst.

In it, we meet an old Midwestern preacher, who has decided to write a letter to his young son. And what a rambling, boring, pretentious letter it is. One reviewer pointed out that the letter-as-novel framework is the refuge of a writer bereft of any coherent notion of what to write. It removes troublesome considerations such as characterization, plot, pacing, structure, and resolution from the equation, allowing the writer to more or less free associate. To be sure, Robinson can pen a pretty sentence, but when it's not in the service of anything, who cares?

It's a shame, because there are a few hints of what might have been buried in the Rev. Ames' letter. Of particular interest to me was the potential story of the conflict between his man-of-action abolitionist grandfather and his pacifist father (both preachers themselves) at the time of the Civil War. Unfortunately, moments like these are few and far between, although I'll admit that those more religiously oriented than myself may find the Rev. Ames' rambling musings on humanist theology to be of interest. As for myself, I found the entire book capably summed up by two lines I marked while reading. In the first, the Rev. Ames appears to clearly act as the voice of the author when he writes, "I sometimes almost forget my purpose in writing this." And in the second, the Rev. Ames appears to apologize on the author's behalf by noting that that the most notable lesson from his lifetime of reading is that "some very tedious gentlemen have written books." To which we may add "ladies" -- at least in the case of this book.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 10 January 2010
I don't normally go for American novels, but bought this after hearing extracts of it read aloud on a course - the language conveys the narrator's appreciation of the beauty of everyday scenes. It is the thoughts of a elderly minister in a small town "on the edge of the great plains", written for his young son by an unexpected late marriage. Somehow, with very little direct action ), he spins a story of faith, integrity and love that draws the reader in. Current hopes and fears are linked through three generations, from the 1950s (where the story is set)back to the civil war. The dilemma of whether justice can be achieved through violence is explored compassionately, with no slick answers.
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