Lila by Marilynne Robinson

As soon as you turn to the first page of Lila, you remember why Marilynne Robinson is such a celebrated author. There is a stillness to her prose, a careful attentiveness that is never affected but always affecting. She follows the turns of a young woman thinking over her life, its hardships and its blessings, with brilliant clarity. There is something profound about her ability to slip into character so wholeheartedly. All our worries about life – what it means, why we exist at all, the simple bodily urge to breath even when we feel despair – are laid out in these pages like little gifts.

Though Lila is set in Gilead, Iowa, a place at the heart of her novels Gilead and Home, you can read this novel without knowledge of either of the other two. This is a novel about one woman’s experience and our journey through it. We feel her walking and working through the landscape of old America. We understand the call of the sunlight, the river, the bounty and hardship of the soil. We know her fear of love and the anxiety and confusion it can bring to the fundamental business of staying alive.

And this is what is so beautiful about the book. Lila has only had one year of schooling but the depth of her thoughts and questions show education to be useless without observation and reflection. Learning letters can teach you how to read but not always how to question. Being able to reflect on the world around us is perhaps our most valuable human gift and Lila has an abundance of it.

‘You can say to yourself, I’m just a body that thinks and talks and seems to want its life, one more day of it. You don’t have to know why. Well, nothing could ever change if your body didn’t just keep you there not even knowing what it is you’re waiting for. Not even knowing that you’re waiting at all.’ (p179)

Remembering always felt almost guilty, a lingering where there was no cause to linger, as if whatever you loved had a claim on you and you couldn’t help feeling it no matter what.’ (p242)

I don’t want to dwell on the plot because its unfolding is such a pleasure to read. Though I should mention that Lila is also a love story, one that reminds us that daring to love another requires some love of the self. Lila is drawn to remain in Gilead in order to see the old preacher, whose wife and child died and whose garden needs tending. The warmth of the old preacher, seemingly living in a way so at odds to Lila, is a touching grace that relieves the loneliness in both of their lives.

I can’t recommend Lila enough. You won’t want it to end.

Next week I’m reading Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyememi. I’m also delighted to be interviewing Guy Ware tomorrow for Author QH. As soon as the video is ready, I’ll let you all know.