Robinson's novel teaches us how to read it, suggests how we might slow down to walk at its own processional pace, and how we might learn to coddle its many fine details. Nowadays, when so many writers are acclaimed as great stylists, it's hard to make anyone notice when you praise a writer's prose. There is, however, something remarkable about the writing in Gilead … When Robinson reduces her language, it's because secular meaning has exhausted itself and is being renovated by religious meaning … Robinson's book ends in characteristic fashion, with its feet planted firmly on the Iowa soil and its eyes fixed imploringly on heaven, as a dying man daily pictures Paradise but also learns how to prolong every day – to extend time, even on earth, into a serene imitation of eternity.
There's nothing flashy in these pages, and yet one regularly pauses to reread sentences, sometimes for their beauty, sometimes for their truth … The time span of Gilead is roughly a hundred years – from the 1850s to 1956, when Ames sets down his story. Implicitly, it looks far into the future – Ames imagines his little boy as an old man – and in spirit back to Biblical times. Eventually one realizes that beyond a portrait of the human condition – prey to isolation and loneliness, ever needful of faith and love – Robinson has subtly introduced that great heartbreaking theme of American history, the often divisive, unfulfilled quest for social and racial justice.
Gilead takes the form of Ames's journal entries, written for his child to read when he is grown. The narrative roams and circles, as diaries do, and is largely cerebral, with little forward imperative. In this sort of book all depends on the quality of the contemplation and the charm of the voice. Fortunately, Ames's is original and strong … The story here seems overlaid, a thin vein on top of the book, not even covering its full span. It is as if Robinson has lost the taste for plot … One hesitates to define Gilead exactly as a novel. It is a beautiful book of ideas.