“She did wonder why dust fell so evenly, more like rain than like snow, since the wind pushed snow into drifts.“
I was pleased when I saw Marilynne Robinson’s name appear on this year’s Booker long-list. I was also slightly embarrassed as I have had Lila sat on my book shelf for 6 months without getting around to it. This was odd because her two previous novels, which also take place in the Iowa town of Gilead – Gilead and Home – had been books which I loved: Indeed, Gilead is one of the finest novels of the last 25 years in my opinion (and one in which we first met – if only in passing – Lila “I mean only respect when I say that your mother has always struck me as someone with whom the Lord might have chosen to spend some part of His mortal time.”)
The eponymous heroine of the latest book, Lila steps into the Gilead church one day to get out of the rain, and immediately find herself fascinated by its preacher, the reverend John Ames. He meanwhile is immediately smitten. She has come a long way. Abandoned as a young child; rescued/stolen by a woman named Doll (“Stealing a child, when Doll had come to her like an angel in the wilderness“). She is flighty and doesn’t really trust anyone. Her whole life she has been running from her beginnings, living hand to mouth and drifting from place to place with Doll and a rag-tag of other drifters as her only family and protectors. It is Doll who gives her her name – hoping that a pretty name will make her a pretty woman.
The book moves back and forth between this past life and her meeting and growing relationship with Ames. It is a sweet courtship, and one that might feel twee or corny in less skilled hands. She plants flowers on his dead wife’s grave and suddenly there is a marriage proposal: “The roses are beautiful. On the grave. It’s very kind of you to do that.” She shrugged. “I like roses.” “Yes, but I wish there were some way I could repay you.” She heard herself say, “You ought to marry me.” He stopped still, and she hurried away, to the other side of the road, the flush of shame and anger so hot in her that this time surely she could not go on living. When he caught up with her, when he touched her sleeve, she could not look at him. “Yes,” he said, “you’re right. I will.”
Life the previous novels in the series it is a beautifully written and moving narrative. Once again it is hard not to warm to Ames and his thoughtful religiousness – there is a lot religion going on, plenty of quoted scripture – not totally surprising when one of the central characters is a preacher perhaps. And this might not be to some people’s taste, but it is who these people are, and whilst it is clear across the books that Robinson herself is religious, and some have accused her books of preaching I (as a firm non-believer) disagree as there is thoughtfulness and questioning never far from the surface: “And then she thought, Praying looks just like grief. Like shame. Like regret.” Also, it is a nice touch how when Lila shows some interest in the Bible that Ames suggests she read something like St Matthew, but she is drawn to the darker, more conflicted tales of Job and Ezekiel. The latter perhaps is no surprise as she can identify with a child cast out and saved by a stranger, something she feels parallels her own life.
But this is a love story. A love story between two characters who seem to have spent much of their life searching for something – answers, hope, salvation; and in a way both are looking not for themselves but for others: Lila’s interest in religion and the Bible seems to stem more from a fear that her ‘family’ in her past life will be undeserving of salvation and getting into heaven, than about worries for herself. There is part of her that feels that she doesn’t deserve to be loved and to be happy. But she feels that despite reservations and fears that Ames is a kindred spirit “he was beautiful for an old man. She did enjoy the sight of him. He looked as if he’d had his share of loneliness, and that was all right. It was one thing she understood about him.”
I finished Lila wanting to read Gilead again. I suspect that in turn may want to make me re-read Lila again. This is not to say that Lila fails to stands alone as a self contained piece of fiction, it most certainly does, but is also enhanced if you have read Gilead and (to a lesser degree) Home. Is it a Booker winner? I wouldn’t be disappointed if it was, and certainly wouldn’t be disappointed to see it on the short list.