Book Review: Lila

Tuesday 25 August 2015 by

Lila, Book, Reading, Marilynne Robinson, Virago, Man Booker 2015Lila by Marilynne Robinson

Published by Virago

Lila, homeless and alone after years of roaming the countryside, steps inside a small-town Iowa church – the only available shelter from the rain – and ignites a romance and a debate that will reshape her life. She becomes the wife of a minister and widower, John Ames, and begins a new existence while trying to make sense of the days of suffering that preceded her newfound security.

Neglected as a toddler, Lila was rescued by Doll, a canny young drifter, and brought up by her in a hardscrabble childhood of itinerant work. Together they crafted a life on the run, living hand-to-mouth with nothing but their sisterly bond and a lucky knife to protect them. But despite bouts of petty violence and moments of desperation, their shared life is laced with moments of joy and love. When Lila arrives in Gilead, she struggles to harmonize the life of her makeshift family and their days of hardship with the gentle worldview of her husband which paradoxically judges those she loves.

Revisiting the beloved characters and setting of Marilynne Robinson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Gilead and Orange Prize-winning Home, Lila is a moving expression of the mysteries of existence.


I haven’t read Gilead or Home, so the universe of Lila is completely new to me. But there was something comforting within these pages, that I can’t quite put my finger on. Drawing on the likes of The Grapes of Wrath and Love in the Time of Cholera, Lila is a melancholic tale of a girl rescued from her home to become a drifter, and who drifts in to the life of an old preacher.

Lila is picked up by Doll when she is a young child, sick and frightened. So begins a life on the run, a life with a group of drifters, as they weather the great Crash and the dustbowl of America in the early 20th Century. After Doll dies, Lila is left to fend for herself – eventually winding up as the wife of an old preacher in a small town called Gilead.

The novel is told from Lila’s perspective, as she reflects on her life, on Doll, and on her role as a preacher’s wife. Lila is quiet, defensive, and frightened. She is unsure of her place in the world, unsure of those around her, and unsure of God. She is one of the most loveable characters I have ever read – she is so damaged it makes you ache to care for her, to show her kindness when she has so little of it. There is something deeply moving about her existence – at once familiar and alien – and her struggle with loneliness fills the pages with longing.

I was struck the most with the descriptions – so sparse in their geography and yet so vivid in their imagery. There is a magic to it, an otherworldliness that springs from the pages that you feel like you are stepping in to a history that is not quite real. Lila is most connected to the natural world, and it is through her eyes that you see its beauty and its savagery. It is the most definite thing about the whole novel.

John Ames is so gentle you are afraid you might break him. But for all his honesty, his trust, he is perhaps the hardest character to fathom. It is paradoxical that you could understand more about Lila than he, but you find yourself as baffled by him as she is. There is exquisite tenderness and exquisite pain between them, and their love is so cautious you are afraid to look it in the eye. The other characters drift around them like wraiths. Even Doll, so present in Lila’s story, feels distant and uncertain. John and Lila are caught in the middle of a fog, and it is in Lila’s telling that you begin to make out what is around them. It is elegant and tragic.

Of all the books I have read from the Man Booker longlist so far, this is the one that struck me the most, that lingers with me the longest, and the one I can actually see winning. It is poetic, as beautiful as a rich orchestral piece, and as delicate as a cobweb. Robinson is a true artist in storytelling, and her writing captures the beauty and the beastliness of real life, without thrusting it forward like a prize. Lila is a gift of a book.

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