Gilead by Marilynne Robinson

I’ve had this on my to-read shelf for some time (the one in my bedroom, not the one on Goodreads), basically because I thought Housekeeping was a really magical book.

But I knew there was a long gap between the two — 24 years, apparently — so I didn’t quite know what to expect. And it is a rather different book; more conventional, really. Housekeeping is very descriptive, impressionistic, elusive; it’s a book where not much happens but it happens in a beautiful way. Gilead is more direct, not least because it’s told in character in the first person, and while it’s not exactly action-packed, it has a much more defined plot, with unexpected twists and things being revealed and everything.

I don’t want to exaggerate — it’s still a novel of nuances which works by the accumulation of impressions, and the narrator interweaves past and present, so it’s not a simple linear narrative — but it’s a less overtly poetic book. And I was less blown away by it. But I still think it’s a very fine novel. Most impressive, perhaps, apart from the general quality of the writing, is the characterisation of the narrator: it really does feel like a story told from the viewpoint of an individual, who seems to be an honest witness but whose perspective is partial. In both senses.

One measure of the quality of the writing is this: it is told from the perspective of a preacher, with a lot of religion woven through his telling of the story, and it left me feeling more sympathetic to the idea of a religious life than anything I’ve read for a long time. And sympathy for religion is not something that comes very naturally for me.

Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson

I bought Housekeeping because of an article at the end of last year where Bryan Appleyard made some suggestions of great artists working today. One of his two greatest living novelists was Marilynne Robinson; I don’t always find myself in sympathy with Appleyard, but with a recommendation like that it seemed worth a punt.

detail of Hiroshige’s ‘Two men by a gate in the mountains’

It is a remarkable novel. It’s a first-person story of a girl growing up in a bleak town somewhere in the north-western US in a household that gradually dissolves around her. It’s humane and atmospheric and deeply sad.

Most of all, it’s beautifully written: full of striking images and unexpected, often bleakly humorous details. And elusive and gradual and minor-key.

Is she one of the two greatest living novelists IN THE WORLD? Umm, I don’t know. But I’m willing to consider the possibility that she might be.

» the picture is a detail from Hiroshige’s Two men by a gate in the mountains, found on Wikimedia.

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