Intimate insights into a devout community – review of the Gilead trilogy by Marilynne Robinson

Gilead – Deep but a bit tedious screen-shot-2016-11-06-at-08-34-41

This is a very unusual book in that it doesn’t follow any recognised structure. This makes sense when one realises it’s an old preacher man jotting down his reminiscences about significant events and minor incidents, while trying to impart wisdom to his young son in a letter he intends him to read after he has died.

Very realistically written flashes of emotional depth (e.g. as he fell in love with his second wife), ethical tension (e.g. a common-law mixed marriage in a very conservative Christian community) and spiritual wisdom (e.g. questions about innate evil and predestination) pop up unexpectedly during an otherwise mundane narrative.

We are left with several loose ends.

Home – Life seen from the outside; deeply moving

We enter into the emotional struggles of a black sheep in a very conservative religious family and of his sister who yearns for him to open up, accept himself, stop running away. On the way, deep questions of faith are touched upon. The characters are very well developed, the tension tangible, the uncomfortable secret only revealed at the very end.

Lila – seeing the world through godless eyes

Lila is adopted by a rough, tough woman when she is abandoned by her family. She is brought up in the poorest of circumstances without any real education or knowledge about the wider world or God. Later, as an adult and again alone, she drops to the lowest dregs of society until she runs away. She happens to seek shelter from the weather in a church and meets the old, devout widowed preacher Ames, whom she later marries and from whom she bears a son. Her bafflement at the religious language and practices she encounters is both realistic and at times humorous.

Robinson vividly captures Lila’s inner life, her naive questions about God, her reflections on her past and the faithful devotion of her ‘mother’ Doll and the others in the wandering troop of casual farm labourers. But the style confused me – especially when reading aloud – as we delve into Lila’s world, in which her daily life is interspersed with a jumble of past experiences, inner thoughts and incidental dialogue, often recorded without regular punctuation.


All in all, these books give a very personal perspective on the lives of a few very devout people in a conservative religious community in America in the mid 20th century. We see them struggling both with mundane matters (lack of money, car repairs, gardening) and deep spiritual questions, such as original sin and the possibility of wayward or godless people finding acceptance with God.

One thought on “Intimate insights into a devout community – review of the Gilead trilogy by Marilynne Robinson”

  1. Commenting in English (I don’t speak German): I agree, it is sometimes a tedious read, but has sparks of intriguing information about Lila’s background, which are not explained or resolved. I partially enjoyed it, but experienced the same frustration as you have done. Must be even more difficult for readers whose first language is not English.

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