Book review – Lila by Marilynne Robinson

Here is the review of my February read, which accompanied me to London for a weekend and is now giving me time to read my second Willoughby Books subscription (Carter’s Nights at the Circus, review to follow!). I chose this book for obvious reasons – and with such reasons come great expectations. Mainly: I’m going to identify with this character more than any other, this had better be worth it. Having picked it up in Waterstones purely for the title, and knowing nothing about the author nor her style, this was a gamble. So in I dove…

At first, the novel keeps you at arm’s length. The stream-of-consciousness style isn’t easy to get into at first and sometimes you feel like you’re missing a trick. You don’t know where you are, when the story is set nor where the drama will lie. What does stand out though is a sense of tragedy. The snatching of a child, the Crash, loneliness…

Lila always remains on the outskirts – of Gilead, of Doane’s group of travellers, of the reader’s understanding. And yet, as you turn the pages, you feel compelled to stay with her, sit, sleep and feel her crippling shame alongside her, right there in the corner of her derelict shack.

And then, before I know how, I am Lila. Her questions, so deep but barely formulated, are mine. Like her I am weary of everyone and we feel the same yearning for just a moment of peace.

Doll feels like all the strong women you’ve known, and her precious shawl is the echo of all the comforters in the world. The reader wishes for a look at her face, to see beyond her mark. As for John Ames, the old man, he is all the lovers no one thought they needed. Tentative yet trusting, devoted (and devout), cautious in offering his heart, home and haven. Never has washing clothes in the babbling brook nearby, or the melting of late fresh snow for a christening felt so vital, so perfect. A bouquet of sunflowers or escaping through scrubbing and cleaning – these are the keys to sanity.

Lila bridges epochs, worlds, faiths and seasons. Reading it out of context of the Gilead trilogy means this is all I know of her – and it stands alone well. To me, it really is a precious, intricately crafted narrative. I’ve come away from it surprised at my initial reticence; the experience turned out beautifully. The great plains of America (which I recognise from my time with Grapes of Wrath) is the greater-scale setting for the infinitely complex innermost workings of my namesake’s mind. A strong, revealing journey.