Review – Lila by Marilynne Robinson

‘That was loneliness. When you’re scalded, touch hurts, it makes no difference if it’s kindly meant.’

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Well. What did I think of this? A week after finishing it, I still really have no idea.

On the one hand. There were parts that I loved. The love story, between Lila and the preacher, was hauntingly moving and among the best I’ve read in a long, long time – it is hard to write love, especially such improbable love, in such a convincing and unmawkish way. These two are damaged, especially Lila, who is feeling her way in an unfamiliar world where all of a sudden she cares about people who care about her, and she finds it terrifying. ‘This old man is beautiful and kind and very patient, she thought, and if he looked at me that way I might just die of it. Well, but for now he is mine to touch if I want to.’ The ‘for now’ is important; he’s older than her and she’s a born drifter – in their way they are trying both to get over, and to come to terms with, transience. It is, as a relationship, a long way from a fairy tale.

And yet, they have the enviable simplicity of a half-buried exchange such as:

‘You,’ she said.
He laughed. ‘Who else?’
She said, ‘Nobody else in this world.’

It feels lovely, and private, and true, and is almost its own story in microcosm, like one of those 15-word writing competitions.

It’s also characteristic of the quiet simplicity that underpins the whole novel, from its subject to its language. It is set – well, almost entirely in the mind of the eponymous Lila, with really much less dialogue than one would expect. But outside, in the world, it is set mainly in the 1930s, before, during and after the Great Depression (definite shades of Steinbeck, although without much of the anger); except that the nouns all feel pre-20th century – fish, church, chicken, shawl, preacher, Bible, skillet – and very Anglo-Saxon, and there is nothing in the story which couldn’t be a hundred years older. Time stands still, in Gilead; the forward motion is all internal, emotional, spiritual, philosophical.

And yet, and yet and yet and yet. This is the first Marilynne Robinson I have read. I’ve read about her, many times, but never quite picked up one of her novels. I was expecting the spirituality. I was expecting the beauty of the language. And that is all, undoubtedly, there. I felt, though, a little…preached to, maybe? Lila, feeling her way hesitantly through a maze of religious philosophy, allows Robinson to set down on the page thoughts which feel didactic when they’re expressed, almost (to me, at least) patronizing. I’m actually not yet convinced that this is a novel at all, rather than philosophy. And as philosophy, it feels…unrelenting. Lila’s interior voice is a masterpiece, quiet, almost depressed, to all intents and purposes a wounded animal trying to heal. But it’s all the time, the whole way through, and 260 pages – for me – is too much for doubt and faith without comedy. Life is made up of puns and clowns and people falling over, as well as all of this sad beauty. I found myself wondering who has time for these kinds of questions, let alone all of the time.

But then, that might be like eating a banana and being disappointed that it doesn’t taste like an apple. Am I being unfair, I wonder, criticizing this book for its failure to be something that it never intended to be?

*** – but it might well grow on me

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