by Marilynne Robinson
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $23, 247 pp.
John Ames, a seventy-six-year-old pastor in Gilead, Iowa, is dying of heart disease. So that his seven-year-old son will know him after his death, he is composing a volume of his "begats": an account of his heritage which stretches beyond genealogy and history to include ruminations, instructions, meditations, and exultations on the mysteries of our earthly existence.
Gilead is Robinson's second novel. Her first, Housekeeping, was published in 1980 and has since acquired a large following of academic and nonacademic readers alike. Housekeeping is a great novel of wild and serene originality. It affirms the unique human soul and "all things counter, original, spare, strange," as Gerard Manley Hopkins has it. The story of two young girls whose mother drives a borrowed car into a lake, thereby abandoning them to fancily caretakers each more peculiar than the last, Housekeeping studies the infinite variety of sorrows and joys that can follow in the wake of catastrophe. Populated almost entirely by females, the novel has been rightly celebrated as a girl's sublime coming-of-age story, its questioning of modem culture and rationalism unsettling, necessary, universal.
No wonder this new novel has been so anticipated. It is not, however, as if Robinson's writerly interests have been lying fallow. In the years since Housekeeping, she...