A Balm in Gilead?

Forgive the cheap pun in the title but I am beginning to think I should read Marilynne Robinson’s latest novel. James Wood had some heady praise for the work late last month in the NYT: ”Gilead is a beautiful work — demanding, grave and lucid.” And now Ann Hulbert in Slate takes up the charge:

In the Bible, the balm of Gilead is a rarity, yearned for in vain. In the gospel song, it flows copiously, making the wounded whole and healing sin-sick souls. Both properties are true of Marilynne Robinson’s second novel, Gilead. Long-awaited and altogether unlike any other work of fiction (even her own), it has sprung forth more than 20 years after Housekeeping with what I can only call amazing grace. It is as spare, and as spiritual, a novel as I think I have ever encountered. Yet reading it is enough to inspire missionary fervor: You must read this book.

This paragraph in particular was intriguing:

What Robinson has written is, in fact, a mystery—not merely a spiritual meditation on the mystery of God’s grace, that “absolute disjunction between our Father’s love and our deserving,” as Ames phrases it at one point, but a literary, and a literal, mystery.

The subject (grace, faith/religion, etc.), the setting (Midwest), and the effusive praise of critics are all pulling me toward this book. Question for the peanut gallery: Should I read Robinson’s first novel – published twenty years ago – before Gilead? I often like to read an author’s work in order just to get a feel for their writing and style, but obviously that is not always possible or necessary. Those with strong opinions feel free to weigh in . . .

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).