the guardian Sat 31 January 2009
Last February someone brought this 2005 Pulitzer prize-winning novel back from America for me, because three years after it came out in print it still wasn't available on audio over here. It is now, and I'd like to tell you that that's why I'm writing about it - but the shameful truth is that it has taken me that long to finish it. I kept starting it and losing interest and starting again and wondering why on earth a book about a small, dusty prairie town in 1956, where absolutely nothing happens, written in the form of a letter from a 75-year-old preacher to his six-year-old son had been so rapturously acclaimed. I gave it my last shot on a longhaul flight at Christmas, finished it before doors to manual and have been thinking about it ever since. Maybe that's the test of a great book: it hits you slowly and the bruise lasts.
The reason he's writing, the Reverend John Ames tells his son, is that he has a weak heart, he won't be around much longer and he wants to tell the boy so much about his family, starting with the three generations of Rev John Ameses who have preceded him. The first was a fire-and-brimstone-preaching abolitionist who fought for the unionists in the civil war, the second was a pacifist, and, of the narrator, the third John Ames, all I will say is that he is gloriously, exasperatingly, pathetically and inspiringly human - true to himself and his son. Robinson's saga about families, faith, love and loss is a quiet masterpiece.
the observer Sun 09 November 2008
It's 1956 in Gilead, a nothing town in Iowa. Now in his mid-70s, preacher John Ames is facing his approaching death by writing a lengthy letter to the son he will not see into adulthood. 'What have I to leave you but the ruins of old courage and the lore of old gallantry and hope?' he asks. It's a question that sets the novel's lyrical and questioning tone as the old man interweaves the lives of those who have gone before him with his thoughts about the world that will continue after he, too, has gone. The gently American, finely judged narration succeeds in combining contemplation with vigour and in conveying a suggestion of mysticism.