Marilynne Robinson’s latest novel Lila re-visits the characters and setting of her previous novels, Pulitzer prize winning Gilead, and Orange prize winning Home. The narrative follows the meandering and often dark thoughts of the main protagonist, Lila, the much younger wife of John Ames, the Congregationalist minister in the small town of Gilead in Iowa. Lila is in awe of her place in their marriage, the town of Gilead, and the wider world, all of which feels remote to her, imbuing her with a constant sense of uncertainty and dread. Lila has a sharp intellect, despite only one year of traditional schooling, and has always been alert and curious. Her constant questioning of the meaning of life have both intrigued and fascinated her husband ever since their first meeting, Lila having walked into his church: “I just been wondering lately why things happen the way they do”. As she continues to read the Bible to try to make sense of the world, she asks him questions which he finds he cannot answer, encouraging him to explore further his own beliefs and values. This is all set within the context of a wider debate on Robinson’s Christian beliefs and morality throughout the novel.
The harshness of Lila’s upbringing, which has ingrained in her the need to “trust nobody”, is juxtaposed with the rough tenderness of Doll, the drifter who found her as a toddler and who has looked after her since. Key to their survival is a knife, the one personal belonging which Lila guards jealously throughout her lonely journey through life to the relative calm of her marriage. When she eventually has to leave Doll, it is that knife which acts as a symbol of their life together: “that knife was the difference between her and anybody else in the world.”
The narrative develops in what is almost a stream of Lila’s consciousness, moving backwards and forwards through the events of her lifetime. The prose is intense and absorbing, with dialogue wrapped inside her flow of thought, emphasising the extent to which she never quite tells her husband everything she is thinking and continually questions herself and what she can tell him. Even while talking to him, she holds herself back:
“Well, that’s probly because I never tell you nothing.” She thought, Anything. I can talk better than this. I guess I just don’t want to.
This form of writing draws the reader into Lila’s struggles to make sense of the disparities between her precarious hand-to-mouth existence with Doll and the various people with whom they sporadically shared their nomadic lives, and the more settled and gentle life she now has with her husband.
There is a deep sadness throughout the text of the novel which is coupled with a compassion and depth of understanding which deepens and grows between Lila and John. There are aspects of her past which she never reveals to him, such as her time spent in a whorehouse in St Louis and her relationship with a man called Mack, but which are revealed to the reader through her constant internal monologue. In parallel, John is equally unsure that she will remain with him and believes she may ultimately leave. It is partly this air of uncertainty between them, together with Lila’s often disarming honesty, which sustains and deepens their mutual love and respect.
Somebody like you got no reason at all to marry somebody like me.
The novel is one which haunts and intrigues the reader long after finishing the book. Lila’s deep questioning within such beautifully constructed and absorbing prose combines to form a unique and very satisfying reading experience which is worthy of inclusion on the Booker long list.