Lila

I really must do what I can to tackle the large pile of to-be-reviewed books that have built up over the course of December, not least because I have read several very good ones. It’s my own fault for being so absent from blogging in the lead-up to Christmas – which I hope was good for everyone? (Mine was very nice, thank you.)

lilaFirst up must be Marilynne Robinson’s Lila. I attempted Gilead many years ago now and got nowhere with it. I think I gave up after about fifty pages, it was such a contemplative and abstract sort of affair I couldn’t get any traction in it. So I didn’t have high hopes for Lila, though I was urged on by the other co-eds at Shiny who promised me it was at least about something. And indeed it is an unusual but extremely poignant love story between two people who never believed they could ever find love. It sounds awful when I describe it that way, maudlin and saccharine and full of cliche, but it isn’t these things at all, perhaps because of its thoughtful, careful bringing together of poverty, faith and homecoming against a backdrop of existential uncertainty. Or maybe it works because its main character is a force of such resistance – a woman who fights hard against love, who is only interested in the most challenging questions of theology, whose intelligence is constructed out of mistrustful peasant wisdom, who wants to want nothing for safety’s sake. As I write this and look back over the novel, what I see is a delicately held balance between light and dark, tragedy and hope; a narrative that holds its breath, gazing in perplexity at its own situation, and perhaps it is the very strangeness of such a narrative perspective that makes Lila such a striking piece of art.

Apparently the scene appears in both Gilead and Home, of the preacher, John Ames, noticing a young woman entering his church to shelter from the rain. This woman is Lila, who lives in a shack on the road out of town and offers herself at daily rates for domestic work among the families in Gilead. She is beyond poor. Her life has been a hardscrabble one, abandoned as a child but then brought up by the kind Doll, who had nothing herself but a knife that she will eventually use to commit murder. Doll and Lila joined a work party that fell apart during the years of the Depression, when they all nearly starved. Lila then moved to a whorehouse in St Louis for a while, but unable to see the point of high heels, she quickly switched jobs and became their cleaning lady instead. Forced to move on again, she took the bus to nowhere and got off on the outskirts of Gilead. Loneliness and mistrust are her closest friends, the worst is all she wants to know about, assuming it will be her lot.

Lila finds herself unaccountably drawn to the goodness of the preacher, despite her best intentions. And John Ames, despite being 67, almost twice her age, is drawn to Lila; her hardworking spirit that barely cloaks the wildness of the cornered animal. Ames has been a widower for decades, since his first wife died in childbirth, so he has his own emotional damage to contend with. But when Lila starts to grow roses over the graves of his wife and child, this unexpected tenderness sinks him. How on earth do these two people come together, you might ask? The story doesn’t even attempt to explain it. A kind of inner longing for the good things in life, so sidelined and silenced inside Lila that she never even sees it coming, makes her blurt out to the preacher that he should marry her. Ames, scarcely crediting his luck, is quick to agree. Then they both anxiously renege on the decision, fearful of the poor bargain the other is getting. But goodness and hope win out; the preacher baptises Lila in the midst of this conversation, choosing the river with its absence of any kind of pretension, and Lila, who has not been able to face the conventionality of a church, feels miraculously understood; the agreement is back on.

What is so striking in this novel is the emotional wisdom that fuels this tentative, fearful love affair. Both Ames and Lila have suffered so much in the past that they have a hard time believing that anything can come right. They have lost faith in their own abilities to attract the good and the reliable. Robinson understands that in order to love, we have to believe we are loveable, and much of the narrative is bound up with working through that Gordian knot of fear and concern. ‘But when folks are down to the one thing that keeps them alive,’ Lila thinks to herself, ‘that one thing can be meanness. It makes you feel like you’re there, like you’re doing something.’ How to break that particular habit? How to let go of the security it represents? And how to bypass the shame of all that poverty, not just material, but emotional, too? Lila brings these questions to John Ames in a curious kind of courtship, fascinated by his religious belief and the gentleness in which it is made manifest. She brings her toughest questions to him, questions about the meaning of life and the value of evil experience that he repeatedly fails to answer sufficiently. But perhaps there is truthfulness in this, and Lila can begin to trust a man who is so clearly trying to find a way to comfort her, whilst accepting that there is no easy comfort to be had.

Yet Lila is experiencing comfort – the kindness of Gilead and its inhabitants, the warmth of a real house around her, the love of the preacher. ‘The quiet of the world was terrible to her, like mockery’ the narrative tells us. She cannot believe this is anything other than a false lull in the storm of existence.

Mystery and wonder are large component parts of Robinson’s literary imagination; they balance out the unyielding, intractable parts of her characters’ lives. That a pure and poignant love can grow and start to flourish on such unlikely ground, unexplained, unaccountable but undeniably there, does restore a true sense of the miraculous to love itself. The narrative wanders, back and forth, between the strange contentment of the present moment and the various hardships and punishments of Lila’s former life; given the insistent but subtle religiosity of Robinson’s writing, it’s easy to read an allegory into this of wilderness endured before paradise can be found. The hard-nosed realism of her writing reminds us that paradise is only gained under the shadow of the deepest mistrust.

I don’t think I could face another go at Gilead, but I’m very glad indeed to have read Lila and to understand why people go on about Marilynne Robinson being such a great writer; she is indeed a great writer.

27 thoughts on “Lila

    • I forgot to mention that I have also read Housekeeping. Like you, I struggled with it because of the glacial slowness. Though you’re right that the writing is lovely. I preferred Lila to this one, too.

  1. This is a well balanced and thoughtful review – and I’m glad you didn’t let your impression of Gilead stop you from reading this one. I’ve yet to read either. I just feel it might not be my kind of thing, but you’ve made me have just a flicker of doubt…

    • I can quite see how Robinson’s novels would not be for everyone – I’ve never been quite convinced they are for me! But Lila definitely grew on me until I found that I was savouring the unexpected comfort it offered. If you ever feel like giving her a go, try Lila, because it’s been a very different experience for me than her other novels. (And let me know how you get on if you do!)

  2. Having, like you, given up Gilead and been underwhelmed by Housekeeping many years ago despite feeling that I should have thought it was wonderful – every one else seemed to – I think I have to try Marilynne Robinson again, now.

    • Underwhelmed is a very good way of describing how I felt about Housekeeping too! I did finish that one, and saw there was much to admire… but it never got to me. Lila I have found a different sort of book, and I would love to know how it strikes you, if you do get to it.

  3. You do make a very convincing argument! I’m still not entirely sure that it’s for me, but then it would be dull if we all liked the same thing!

  4. I loved ‘Gilead’ from the first to the last page and thought that ‘Home’ was even better. So why haven’t I got round to reading ‘Lila’? One of those completely unanswerable questions.

  5. Since I was reading Gilead on lunch breaks at work and I am on vacation at the moment I haven’t read it in a while but I am still enjoying it so maybe one day you will give it another go, you never know! Good to know Lila turned out so well. I look forward to reading it sometime🙂

  6. Your review gives me some encouragement, Victoria. I too have tried and failed to get anywhere with Gilead. I’ve picked it up two or three times without much success. (In fact I was beginning to wonder if it was just me, as everyone else I know seems to rave about Robinson’s prose!) Lila does sound like a different prospect, though. It’s not top of my list by any means, but I do feel I should give this writer another try at some point.🙂

  7. I read Housekeeping when I was 22 and loved it immensely, but I tried to read Gilead and, like you, never got very far. I would be very glad indeed if Lila took me back anywhere near to that first, intense love of Robinson’s writing!

  8. What a wonderful, thoughtful review, Victoria. And so glad you are Team Robinson, for this one at least. I wonder if you’d enjoy Home? I shan’t try to tempt you with Gilead again😉

  9. I’m reading Lila right now. My favourite bits are the places where her internal thoughts about theology and salvation combine with her thoughts about Ames and Doll–they feel real and beautiful and true to me. Lovely review.

  10. I have never read any Robinson but so often see her work referred to in glowing terms. One day I shall really have to get around to reading one, Lila really appeals, perhaps more than her other novels.

  11. I’m happy to see that you liked this so much. As you probably know, I’m a tremendous fan of Robinson’s work, but I know it doesn’t suit everybody. But she does something a little different with each book, while retaining something of the same thoughtfulness, so it makes sense that some of her books would resonate where others wouldn’t. Since you did like this, you might try Home at some point. It’s more concrete than Gilead and I think you might like the main character.

  12. I loved “Gilead,” a fact still surprising to me, since I don’t really care much about the aesthetics of writing, and that is such a tremendously, inescapably “written” novel. I think I responded so strongly to it, though, for the same reasons I responded to “Middlemarch”–there’s an almost unbelievable depth of clear-sighted compassion about people and the ways in which they destroy and save one another. I haven’t read any of Robinson’s other books, perhaps out of fear that they wouldn’t be as good. I might give this one a go, though.

  13. I got as far as the sample for Lila, and was drawn to it, but was still slightly put off by the memory of either Gilead or Home, I can’t even remember which now, it was so long ago. It just seemed so long when I was reading it. Glad you thought it was better than Gilead!

  14. I loved Lila for its courage, for writing about love that accepts not knowing and that allows human beings not to nail things down but to continue to wonder why things happen and why they don’t, to allow doubt, and to talk about joys and disappointments and fears, and to demonstrate these feelings, even if, as in the Reverend’s case, you subscribe to a religion that – some would say – should provide all the answers. Robinson writes so very well, I feel, as David Rochester says above, about why and how people destroy and save each other. She is a writer who deserves all the praise that comes her way.

  15. I started with ‘Home’, then was given ‘Gilead’ by accident, and found myself unable to put it down, so ordered ‘Lila’ (and will now go and get ‘Housekeeping’). People rave about Knausgaard as a postmodern Proust, but Marilynne Robinson is much closer to being Proust’s daughter, for me. It seems to me that both writers are in love with character and identity, endlessly immersed in and fascinated by how character forms. Their writing is emergent, it builds into a clear form, feathered and layered like a painting, a palimpsest of minute repetitions and adjustments. If Marilynne were asked herself, perhaps she would cite Faulkner and James as her influences, rather than Proust, but for me they are talking across a century — he obsessed with the impossibility of love and the minutiae of caste, she with the infinite possibility of love and forgiveness and the outcast. So much writing about selfhood is in the first person and focuses on recording every action with an obsessive analysis of emotional reaction. There’s a fair amount of this in Proust, of course, but at his best, there is plenitude, cornucopia, multiplicity and provisionality, a tender embrace of all that the human organism can experience. Robinson doesn’t operate at a glacial pace so much as in geological time – layers of memory troubled by occasional seismic upheavals. She writes in the third person and teases out the skeins of her characters’ inner lives into a filament of perpetual wonder.

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