Lila by Marilynne Robinson

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Reviewed by Simon 

It is difficult to write a review of a Marilynne Robinson novel that can even begin to do her writing justice. Reading one of her books makes me want to go and re-write all the other reviews I’ve written of other authors, toning them down, so that the words ‘excellent’ or ‘brilliant’ can be reserved for somebody of Robinson’s talent. Granted I’m not the best-read when it comes to 21st-century literature, but I would unhesitatingly call Robinson the greatest living writer – and in Lila, where she revisits the people and location of previous novels Gilead (2004) and Home (2008), she has continued this remarkable success.

Lila is present in the two previous novels – she is Mrs Ames, the wife of the aging minister whose first person narrative brings you so close to his thoughts and memories in Gilead. The couple are more incidental in Home, which focuses upon the neighbouring Boughton family, but in neither book is Lila anything comparable to an open book. This excerpt from Home is indicative:

Ames took off his glasses and rubbed his eyes. He felt a sort of wonder for this wife of his, in so many ways so unknown to him, and he could be suddenly moved by some glimpse he had never had before of the days of her youth or her loneliness, or of the thoughts of her soul.

If she is constant surprise to her husband, she is shadowy to the reader. We see her through the prism of Ames’ devotion, and his astonishment that he should (so late in life) find a wife and be given a son; Lila is a miracle he has been granted. His viewpoint is in no way possessive or selfish, but his grateful love means (naturally) we only see Lila as John sees her. We do not have access to her past or, really, her personality.

All that changes in Lila. Like Home, it is in the third person, but yet still offers an insight into the woman and her early life. We see her, ‘adopted’ (or rescued or kidnapped) by a woman called Doll; she lives in a world of poverty and uncertain loyalties. There is a group (a gang? a makeshift family?) that she is part of, but the boundaries of it are not secure. One day she and Doll may find themselves on the outside of it, and this daughter of man has nowhere to lay her head. We see recurring glimpses of this group – of the lynchpin, Doane, and of the event that separates Doll from Lila and sends her on her journey towards Gilead…

By showing us how different Lila’s early life is, it feels like coming home for the reader when we are eventually in Gilead. I spoke of the ‘people and location’ of Robinson’s earlier novels, but – more to the point – it is the community of those novels that Robinson has so brilliantly built up. A sense that they may judge or hurt each other as much as they love and protect, but that they are securely bound up with each other. This community requires a certain amount of trust – and it is trust that Lila finds so difficult to give. She is like a nervous animal, mistreated in the past and wary of sacrificing her independence for any sort of community.

The extraordinary triumph of Lila is seeing how the relationship develops between Ames and Lila, after she turns up in Ames’ church out of the blue. This is not a Cinderella story, or a heartwarming romance, or anything of the sort. The novel doesn’t fit into any sort of category. It seems too real to be fictional. We see the beautiful patience, honesty, faithfulness, and flaws of Ames that made him such a hero in Gilead – but heavily counterpointed by the impetuousness, wariness, and doubts of Lila. There is a poignant believability to the way she asks questions he cannot answer, then mistakes his silence for reproof; a painful beauty to his recognition that she may leave with his child, and that he can do little but make a home that he hopes will keep her peripatetic spirit. Their conversations are complex, mixing her doubts and his hopes; his long-earned wisdom and her vital awareness of the crueller side of human nature…

He said, “You know, there are things I believe, things I could never prove, and I believe them all day, everyday. It seems to me that my mind would stop dead without them. And here, where I have tangible proof” – he patted her hand – “when I’m walking along this road I’ve known all my life, every stone and stump where it has always been, I can’t quite believe it. That I’m here with you.”

She thought, Well that’s another way of saying it ain’t the sort of thing people expect. She had heard the word ‘unseemly’. Mrs. Graham talking to someone else about something else. No one said her belly was unseemly, no one said a word about how the old man kept on courting her, like a boy, when she was hard and wary and mainly just glad there was a time in her life when she could rest up for whatever was going to happen to her next. She felt like asking why he couldn’t see what everybody else had seen her whole life. But what if that made him begin to see it? First she had to get this baby born. And after that she might ask him some questions.

It is far too simplistic to say simply that these are two good people – both have deficiencies, and both are too well-drawn and complete to be tied down to any single adjective – but they are both deeply lovable people. Robinson writes with an intense subtlety about fairly ordinary characters – but, by examining them in such close detail, and showing so vividly what it is they want and what they fear, she has made the ordinary not only extraordinary but immortal. I don’t know if we will ever be given a return journey to the community of Gilead, but even if Robinson never writes another word, she is also (I believe) assured of a place among the immortals.

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Simon is one of the Shiny New Books editors.

Marilynne Robinson, Lila (Virago, London, 2014), 978-1844088805, 272pp., hardback.

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