Why things happen

This is my review of Lila by Marilynne Robinson.

Marilynne Robinson's writing fascinates me. For a celebrated professional creative writer she has produced relatively few novels, of which three produced over a decade examine and rework the lives of two families in the quiet Iowan town of Gilead, each book focussing on the inner thoughts of a different character. Lila, a newcomer who has married the Reverend John Ames in his old age and borne him a son, is a minor figure in "Home" and "Gilead", but comes to the fore in this latest novel. Best read in turn with Lila last, to understand all the references, they can be treated as standalone novels.

Carried on a stream of consciousness which catches Lila's distinctive voice, we learn how she was abducted as a young child from a neglectful and possibly violent household by Doll, an itinerant casual worker. On the run for years from some real or imagined pursuer, they attach themselves to a small group who find jobs where they can in what sounds like the dustbowl America of the `30s, although the author is vague as to time and place. Despite having been barely tolerated by everyone apart from the protective Doll, Lila retains a nostalgic longing for her childhood, lived mostly out in the open, with a keen sense of nature and the seasons, and what little they all had shared in common.

By comparison, in the reverend's comfortable old house, with his kind and patient attention, she often feels lonely and reluctant to confess details of her past for fear this may turn him against her. It appears he has married her out of his own loneliness and a sense of her reflective nature, drawn to the same spiritual questions which perplex him. Perhaps he feels a desire to give practical support to a woman in need who has endured hardship through no fault of her own, outside the safe shell of his own life troubled only by self-concocted theological dilemmas. We can never be any surer about his motives than Lila, for everything is seen through her eyes. The book is full of irony: the old man never grasps that she likes to read Exekiel because its fire and brimstone images capture a sense of her own past life. He is amused by her announcement that she never wants to have a credenza in the house, not realising that this was the piece of furniture in which a whorehouse madam kept locked up the few possessions of the young women she exploited.

Since every phrase appears crafted with care, the book needs to be read slowly, rereading some sentences aloud to capture the full meaning by stressing the right word. Although it has been described as one of the saddest books imaginable, the beauty, expressiveness and wry humour of the style make the bleak aspects tolerable. Lila's pregnancy also strikes a continual optimistic beat. The mistrust of John Ames' old friend the Reverend Boughton, and likely bewildered disapproval of parishioners, held in check by respect for the old clergyman, are only hinted at in this subtlest of novels.

If I have any criticism it is over the repetition of some points, although this could be intended to convey how the mind keeps revisiting old ground. In the same way, the very muted ending could reflect the reality of most people's experience. The author's Calvinist background exerts a strong influence, which could deter readers with no biblical knowledge or belief. As an atheist who accepts that Christianity is deeply embedded in mid-west American society, I would say that this book is worth reading if you appreciate skilful writing and have an interest in psychology, how people think and interrelate, often failing to communicate, and how they come to terms with intimations of mortality and the transiency of both pleasure and pain.

⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ 5 Stars

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