J.A. Gray has far and away the most perceptive review I’ve seen of Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead in the March issue of First Things . Gray attends to the gaps and reticence of the narrator, John Ames, pointing out that Ames never mentions the name of his young son, to whom the whole book is addressed, or his second wife, and that Ames leaves hints that his congregation never accepted his second marriage and that he might be secretly, unconsciously relieved “that he will not be there to wound his son or to suffer the wounds that sons can inflict on fathers.” He also challenges the widespread impression that Robinson’s book is plotless: “there is no shortage of faught and suspenseful episodes, including murder, religious terrorism, apostasy, fornication, child abandonment, and secret miscegenation.” The apparent plotlessness comes not from the lack of incident, but from Ames’ tendence to “say most where he says least. So obliquely and unemphatically are the deepest wounds divulged – his grandfather’s commission of a gratuitous and monstrous sin against Ames’ ten-year-old father, and Ames’ father’s loss of his religious faith (abetted, unhappily, by Ames himself) – that a reader who blinks may miss them.” Gray’s review provokes perseverance in flagging readers, and encourages re-reading for those who have finished the book but missed the layers. It is the best kind of review: Not a substitute for the book, but a nudge to the reader to read once again, more attentively.

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