Gilead came to me under false pretences. A review called it southern gothic and it ain’t southern gothic. What it is is a beautifully written story in the form of a dying man’s letter to his young son.

The man in question is the Reverend John Ames and the year is 1956, though it feels 100 years earlier than that. Ames is a pastor in a small mid-western US town (the Gilead of the title) and he has married late in life, married a much younger woman, and finds himself, in his 70s, a father for the first time. Realising he will never see his son grown up, he uses the letter to tell the boy about his life, to impart what wisdom he can, and to communicate to him the utter joy he feels in receiving the late-life blessing of becoming a father.

It is a deep meditation on fatherhood, poignant but always suffused with happiness. I’m almost crying thinking about it, and I’m sure many fathers will feel the same.

Ames comes from a line of reverends, and the book is steeped in the Christianity of his upbringing and continued faith. Every event of his life is filtered through his understanding of God’s will and his efforts to discern what God’s plan might be.  He is humble in the face of this mystery and struggles at every point to be worthy of the grace he believes is always available to him.

Reading it through my atheist eyes, I can’t help but wish that more people of faith were like Ames. I feel no desire at all to argue with his belief, to question his faith, and I feel sure he would do me the same courtesy. I am sure he feels sorrow (not pity) for anyone who turns away from God, just as I feel sad that such a fine mind could give itself over to what I consider a fantasy, but I would hope that, if we met, we would respect each other’s failings.

The heart of the story is his relationship with his son, but this is mirrored in his relationship with the son of his best friend. This boy is now a grown man, a prodigal son who has made a mess of his life, whom his parents love above all others, and with whom Ames himself has had a fraught relationship.

When this man returns to Gilead, Ames’ nightmare becomes that when he dies, this prodigal will take up with his wife, become father to his son. Ames spiritual and emotional wrestle with this fear takes up a good portion of the book and the way it is handled is one of the triumphs of modern literature. Or at least, of anything I’ve read.

Gilead is a moving account of an ordinary life rocked by ordinary fears and events. It is about a father’s love for his son. It is a great book.

Peter Fray

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