Friday, 1 July 2016

Lila by Marilynne Robinson

This review, I think, pairs nicely with one I'll write in a couple of days, because the world views of both are so diametrically opposed. So remember that when my review of The Library at Mount Char  comes along, because it'll be relevant.

I was having a discussion with a friend who had read, not this book, but Marilynne Robinson's Housekeeping, and we were going back and forth over the difficulty of expressing how powerful these books are to people who haven't read them. How do I explain prose that is, on the surface, so plain and simple, and yet, with the accumulated weight of the three connected Gilead books, can move me to tears with a line?

How do you express what she does here? It's so masterful, it's so subtle. I suspect the moments that hit me to the core might not be the ones that hit you. And yet, if you read these books and are content with what they are, I'm very sure something will move you as it moved me.

It's the sheer amount of layering, without ever being blatant against it, or drawing attention to it. I am quite sure you could read this book just exactly as it is, without having read the others, and still enjoy it. I am equally sure that if you have read the two preceding books, the emotional wallop is magnified to an almost unbelievable degree. It's not done explicitly - much of the work here has to be done by the reader, bringing themselves to meet the prose, and when the two meet, it's so deep and subtle and powerful.

We move backwards in time for this one. The last two books have been centered around roughly the same time, when Jack Boughton, the prodigal son, comes home. The man Jack is named after, the Reverend Ames, has a much younger wife and young son, and sees his life drawing to a close, and is worried what will happen to his wife when he passes. There is worry whether or not Jack would attract her, either before or after his death, worry why Lila seems to have a kinship to Jack.

We jump back, to the days before and just after Ames marries Lila, and further back, to hear who Lila is and how she ended up where she does, and why she married him and what her life with him means to her. In this, in these books steeped in the idea of the ministry and Christianity, we get a further sense of different Christianities, those that can stretch to incorporate difference and those that can't.

Without getting into Lila's past, much of what Ames preaches makes no sense to her, is in a language that she can't apply to what she's been through. And there's a strong way in which that's a failing in comfortable Christianity, the assumptions that underlie theology, while feeling so normal they feel eternal rather than situational.

One of the themes of the book seems to be the impossibility of true communication across divides, yet Robinson bridges this through moments that it is hard to give any other name to but grace.

It's such a deep and complex book, even though it always feels simple. She takes the reader to unexpected places, and it's striking and deep. This is not sentimentality, going for feeling without any of the steps that lead to real emotion. Reading Lila is like drowning in a deep well of thought and feeling without realizing it.

Now that I've read the three Gilead books she's written, I feel a sense of loss. I'm not even Christian, and yet these books touch me on a level I can't explain. Part of it is that the Christianity that comes through is complicated and her gaze on it sometimes merciless but always serious, with, again, those moments of grace that point to connections beyond words.


  1. Lovely!! Thanks so much for your review. I felt enmeshed in the first two and always feel a bit out of it when people don't 'get' the depth of these. I look forward to reading this one.

    1. It must be the strangest feeling! How can you possibly explain it to someone who just doesn't see it. (So far, I've mostly run into people who also love her work, or haven't read her.)