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Thomas Gardner

This Poor Gray Ember of Creation

Marilynne Robinson's Gilead is a novel to savor

Marilynne Robinson's second novel, Gilead, is a quiet, deeply moving celebration of the wonders and sustaining bewilderments of human consciousness. As its narrator John Ames writes to his seven-year-old son, describing a difficult journey through the back roads of Kansas he had taken as a child with his father and remembering a shared vision of the rising moon and setting sun on opposite horizons, "palpable currents of light passing back and forth," consciousness is a sort of sweet mysterious strength most of us only brush up against at extraordinary moments:

I can't tell you, though, how I felt, walking along beside him that night, along that rutted road, through that empty world—what a sweet strength I felt, in him, and in myself, and all around us. I am glad I didn't understand, because I have rarely felt joy like that, and assurance. It was like one of those dreams where you're filled with some extravagant feeling you might never have in life, it doesn't matter what it is, even guilt or dread, and you learn from it what an amazing instrument you are, so to speak, what a power you have to experience beyond anything you might ever actually need.

Ames is a 76-year-old pastor, struggling with angina and struggling too with the realization that he won't be able to pass on to the young son of a late, miraculous marriage what most mattered in his life. So, in a long letter, worked at over the course of a spring, summer, and early fall, he composes his life for his son. It's as if his life had been a long dream, intricately detailed, much of it having taken place in the rutted world or lonely wilderness he mentions above, and what he does as he writes, his son's face before him, is attempt to read and enact—to see and suffer again—its inner drama. If he begins simply passing on advice and family history, he ends having passed on a sense of consciousness itself, its power and its limits, its strange, almost wordless exhilarations.

The book is a great gift, and worth ...

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