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Reading group: Gilead by Marilynne Robinson is January's choice

Marilynne Robinson.
Redemptive reading … Marilynne Robinson. Photograph: Ulf Andersen/Getty

Gilead by Marilynne Robinson has been drawn as our book for January’s reading group. Several readers nominated it for our theme of redemption – and all were persuasive. Ceciliefodor said the book was “absolutely beautiful, and will feel like a mental antihistamine for the frantic mind with its almost provocatively slow, meditative pace”.

The actual nomination that emerged from the hat came from vr1777, who wrote:

“I envy those yet to discover Robinson’s Gilead trilogy. I discovered them in 2017 and felt inwardly transformed by their deeply humanistic, thoughtful beauty. My only reservation is that, while each could stand alone, it would take reading all three books to truly experience the ‘redemption’ suggested as this month’s theme.”

We can certainly try to read more of the trilogy if time allows, but I have a feeling that Gilead alone will provide plenty of scope for discussion. In the US, it won the 2005 Pulitzer prize for fiction and the National Book Critics Circle award, and was deemed “a beautiful work – demanding, grave and lucid” by James Wood in the New York Times.

Here in the UK, reactions to the book have been more ambivalent – but fascinatingly so. Naomi Wood called it “a book of a lifetime” in the Independent, but over in the London Review of Books, Tessa Hadley was more doubtful. She found plenty of interest in the book and its equivocation about religion and modernity, but criticised its excessive sermonising, where “the quantity of rumination is disproportionate to the embodiment”. In the Guardian, Ali Smith wrote about the novel’s careful examination of the “damaged heart of America” – although the standout pull quote from the review was: “Gilead, which seems in some ways almost to resent being a novel at all, is perhaps more closely akin to Mother Earth’s ‘effort to break down some of the structures of thinking that make reality invisible to us’, than to the gorgeously evoked absences of Housekeeping. Not the most immediately prepossessing of subjects, it is not the most immediately prepossessing of novels.”

These mixed reactions to the novel are intriguing, and it feels like a challenge worth taking on at the start of the year. Just to pique your interest further, see if you can guess who said the following:

“One of my favourite characters in fiction is a pastor in Gilead, Iowa, named John Ames, who is gracious and courtly and a little bit confused about how to reconcile his faith with all the various travails that his family goes through. And I was just – I just fell in love with the character, fell in love with the book.”

Yes – it was the US president. No, not the current incumbent; the quote comes from a wide-ranging and unapologetically intelligent conversation between Barack Obama and Robinson from 2015. If you can bear the agonising nostalgia, I recommend reading the whole article to get a feel for the themes of faith and uncertainty that run through Gilead. I have to admit that I find Robinson’s interest in American Protestantism slightly daunting. But if there is a cultural divide, it can’t be any wider than that experienced when taking on books like Jane Eyre or the Iliad. And if Obama recommends it, I’m in. I hope you are, too.

Thanks to Virago, we have five copies of Gilead to give to the first five people from the UK to post: “I want a copy please”, along with a nice, constructive suggestion in the comments section below. If you’re lucky enough to be one of the first to comment, email Phill Langhorne with your address and your username (phill.langhorne@theguardian.com) – we can’t track you down ourselves. Be nice to him, too.

This article titled "Reading group: Gilead by Marilynne Robinson is January's choice" was written by Sam Jordison, for theguardian.com on Tuesday 9 January 2018 09.00am

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