A year of reading women

365 days of women's lit

Posts Tagged ‘Christianity

Marilynne Robinson: Gilead

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Preachers tend to get a bad press in literature. From bumbling buffoons like Jane Austen’s Mr Collins through to Hilary Mantel’s sinister and erratically cruel Cardinal, it’s clear that there is not much love lost between many wordsmiths and the Church.

Much of this is no doubt justified by the countless instances of abuse of trust and power, not to mention downright idiocy, bodied forth in pulpits around the world across the centuries. Nonetheless, it was surprisingly refreshing to find an alternative perspective in Marilynne Robinson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Gilead

Set in 1957, the novel is gathered together out of the final writings, recollections and pensees of the Reverend John Ames, a pastor in the two-horse town of Gilead in America’s Midwest. Aware that death is approaching fast and that he will not live to see his young son grow up, the old man sets about writing an extended letter that he hopes will explain something of his history, life and belief system to his child in years to come.

It sounds like a recipe for a huge helping of mawkish sentimentalism. And yet it absolutely isn’t. Instead, Robinson uses a talent for transfiguring the mundane to create a monument to the beauty of the human spirit and the honest attempt to seek out and remain faithful to truth, whatever it may be.

It’s a novel built on moments. The fragmentary nature of the narrative allows Ames to dwell on particular instances, imbuing them with significance because of the way he remembers them. The best of these have a poetic lyricism, backlit by Ames’s certainty about their eternal significance, which offers readers of any religious persuasion and none a compelling insight into the alchemy of faith.

Ames could be a prig, but he isn’t. Suspicious of the shiftless Jack Boughton, who he fears may have designs on his much younger wife, Ames wrestles with his own jealousy and paranoia, deceiving and rebuking himself by turns. He also loves life with a fierce passion that breaks through the measured prose, full of joy, wistfulness and poignancy: ‘Oh, I will miss the world!’ he exclaims in the middle of an anecdote.

This, coupled with Robinson’s excellent eye for awkwardness, and an impeccable interweaving of scripture, gives the narrative a richness and humanity guaranteed to sweep the reader along. I doubt there are many who make it through the final quarter without shedding a tear. 

Picture by Pam’s Pic-‘s

Written by Ann Morgan

December 27, 2011 at 8:53 pm

Lucy Caldwell: The Meeting Point

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A mosque in Manama City, Bahrain

I interviewed Lucy Caldwell when she was 23 and I was 24. She’d just scooped the George Devine Most Promising Playwright Award for Leaves and seen her first novel, Where they were missed, come out to a warm reception, particularly in Northern Ireland — it was later longlisted for the Dylan Thomas Prize. I was hugely jealous .

At the time of the interview, she was about 20,000 words into the first draft of a novel that was going to be set in Bahrain and was so warmly and openly enthusiastic about the whole thing that, for all my envy, it was impossible not to get caught up in the excitement of this new project and to want her to do well. She told me about a research trip she’d done to the tiny and (at that stage) little-thought-of Middle Eastern state said by some to be the site of Eden: ‘I needed to know about the quality of the light, how the air smelled,’ she said, beaming.

So when I heard at the beginning of the year that a novel by Lucy Caldwell set in – yes, you guessed it – Bahrain was tumbling on to the bookshelves, I knew I had to add it to my list. Nearly six years on from our coffee and chat on the South Bank, I was curious to see how the Eden Project had turned out.

It wasn’t an auspicious start. Coming to the book with Stella Gibbons’ demolition job on all things pastoral fresh in my mind, I found the polite lyricism of the opening depiction of rural Ireland tough to get along with. I was also put off my stroke by a review I’d seen in Tatler, of all places, which had called the book a powerful ‘evocation of ex-pat life’. Having read the novel cover to cover, I am delighted to report that that is absolutely not true – there is not a single G&T, cocktail hour or tennis party in sight (thank God). In fact, the main character, Ruth, remarks as much towards the end. Still, the fear that there might be left me in a state of nervous dread for at least the first 50 pages.

Luckily neither of these things was enough to drown out the quiet power of the story, which deftly leads the reader through the psychological unmaking and remaking of a girl and a woman caught between the clash of west and east, the world and the spirit. Raised as a Christian and married young to an evangelical preacher, Ruth finds her ordered life shaken up when her husband is posted to Bahrain, where, she eventually discovers, his mission to spread the gospel goes far beyond legal limits. At the same time, she encounters Noor, a troubled, half-Arab teenager who has her own reasons for not wanting to attract attention. Thrown together with Noor and her distracting cousin Farid, Ruth finds the boundaries of her world, creed and faith stretched to breaking point and beyond.

It’s a book that wears its six years of research and thought lightly. Shot through with the history of the region and its symbolism and mythology, not to mention the religious texts and teachings of both Islam and Christianity, it is deft and moving where the same material in another’s hands might be earnest and awkward.

From the acknowledgements, I see that Caldwell even spent time studying Christian theology on an Alpha Course at Christ Church Spitalfields, yet such meticulous attention to detail merely illuminates the story rather than bogging it down. There is no grandstanding here, no overweening desire to demonstrate intellect or knowledge. Caldwell doesn’t need us to know how clever she is. She merely wants to tell the story as best she can, delighting in the surprising connections and sudden vertiginous glimpses of significance that the things she has found out can add.

For some, the final stages of the story, in which Ruth oscillates between two courses of action, changing her mind repeatedly, will be a little frustrating. It reminded me of the strangely circular quality of the Mantel and a little of Joan Lingard’s After you’ve gone, which shares a similar ending, although that book is simply not in The Meeting Point‘s league.

Here, the circularity works because of the care Caldwell takes of the characters’ psychological development and the subtlety of each shift in their thinking – shifts to which every description contributes. We may seem to cross the same ground again and again, but it is always slightly different. By the end, I could even see why the opening portrayal of Ireland had to be as it did: conjuring a charming, yet ever so slightly staid vision of the world that matches Ruth’s own mindset. We look at the world, with Caldwell, through her creations’ eyes. And it’s this empathy and imagination, this great carefulness of characters’ thought processes and motivations, that make the book so engrossing.

The ending even made me miss my stop on the bus. After I’d clicked beyond the last page, I walked back along the route exhilarated, moved, and, yes, still jealous.

Picture by Gorski

Written by Ann Morgan

April 26, 2011 at 8:57 pm