Nuggets of wisdom
by Kamaldeep Kaur
by Marilynne Robinson. Virago London. Pages 282. £ 314.99.

THIS 2005 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel is set in America roughly from the 1880s to the 1950s. The narrator is the pastor of a small, poverty-stricken village that is peopled with devout Christians. The narrator (who is in his sunset years) vividly describes the people and the events that have occurred in the village, in his lifetime, to treasure the memories for his son. He recounts poignantly the idiosyncrasies, the joys and the sorrows of the people of the village, "There’s a lot under the surface of life, everyone knows that. A lot of malice and dread and guilt, and so much loneliness..."

The novel does not have a singular dominant theme, rather there are many stories woven into a continuous flow of words. It is as if many sermons are strung together interspersed with the author’s own perceptions about his relatives, siblings and friends. "I do try to write the way I think," says the narrator. In this way he urges his son to be a finer human being and carry forward his legacy of kindness and generosity.

The novel is simply written, but at the same time is deeply philosophical and engaging. The language is simple but the style is reflective. The dialogue is restricted to the barest minimum with the focus being on description, analysis and expostulations. There are little nuggets of wisdom that force the reader to think, for example, "`85 a thing that does not exist in relation to anything cannot itself be said to exist."

As is understandable, the novel is deeply indebted to many Biblical stories and allusions. The stories of Hagar and Ishmael and of Abraham are analysed in a great detail, with the narrator offering a fresh perspective of each. Perhaps the most interesting part of the book is when the narrator analyses the Ten Commandments with startling innovation and depth. The narrator eventually declares that the 10th commandment is impossible to follow truly by anyone in this world, including the clergy.

The novel is interesting and enlightening though it may seem tedious and laboured in some instances. Since the narrator is a pastor, the novel seems like one long extended sermon without any interval, which is not to be read casually or flippantly. On the contrary, it requires intensive involvement of the reader at every stage. Only the serious reader will find it enjoyable.

Overall, the novel has perfect rhythm and balance. It is also very poetic, as it gently draws the reader into its realm of beauty, gentleness and thoughtfulness. One can feel the narrator’s benevolence and his all-encompassing love for humanity, qualities that he wants to cultivate in his son. The narrator offers a profound philosophy of life that emanates from his own experiences and the events that unfold around him.