In order to get in before the short-list is announced on Tuesday, I’d like to proclaim that I have review ready for one entry on the Man Booker long list!
There really is no one like Marilynne Robinson. I’ll admit, I don’t read a huge amount of American fiction, but she genuinely feels like a unique literary voice. A lot of this is down to pace, Robinson writes as if her readers were like her characters, with lots of time to spend ruminating and contemplating. Her novels seem designed to be picked up and then left to rest; spreading out the reading over days, weeks and months. I confess, I can’t read like this, but her novels manage to make me feel like I’m inhabiting a different time frame, as well as a different continent.
‘Lila’ fits perfectly into the world created by the Robinson’s previous two novels ‘Gilead’ and ‘Home’. All three work with the same basic time frame, but cover events from different perspectives. This does not mean you need to read the books in order of publication, like Margaret Atwood’s ‘MadAdam’ trilogy (or at least the two of it I’ve read so far) the suspense is character rather than plot driven, so knowing what happens in no way diminishes the reading pleasure. One of the things the book teaches you is how each human is a bit-player in another’s story; central struggles for some characters will emerge as footnotes when narrated by their neighbour.
While the main events therefore are not new, ‘Lila’ still brings something special to the small Iowa town of Gilead. As you may know, depending on how familiar you are with the other novels, Lila is the wife of the popular but ageing Reverend John Ames. She is considerably younger than him and will be left alone with their only child when he inevitably pre-deceases her. All of this is covered from his point of view in ‘Gilead’, but ‘Lila’ brings two significant additions to the story.
Firstly, while ‘Gilead’ is about a father and his son and ‘Home’, though containing an important female character, again focussed on male and paternal relationships, ‘Lila’ is a book about women. Lila herself is brought up by a mysterious woman called ‘Doll’ and knows no other family. While men can be protectors in the novel, they are generally an untrustworthy force, even when benevolent they are transitory and very few are entirely benign. Instead, the stable and significant relationship is mother-daughter; this becomes a self-contained partnership that provides security and unquestioning trust. It’s hard to fault Robinson’s work, but it is possible to miss the female story in her previous two books; ‘Lila’ more than makes up for this.
The second fantastic development is the depiction of America in the novel. Gilead is the name of a town and the title ‘Home’ speaks for itself, but ‘Lila’ explores another dimension of the American Dream. The novel has two time frames, the later is set within the confines of Gilead but the earlier is nomadic; starting with a rushed nighttime flight and then moving across the continent, avoiding towns and the idea of a settled existence. Ironically for a novel dedicated ‘to Iowa’, the eponymous heroine does not know where she lives:
Once, when she was new at the school in Tammany, the teacher asked her what country they lived in. The corn was tall, the sun was hot, the river was high for that time of year, so she said, “Looks to me like pretty decent country.” … And the children laughed, and some of them leaned out of their desks to wave their arms, and they whispered the answer loud enough that the teacher would hear even if she didn’t call on them. “The United States of America!” …
…At the front of the room there was a map of the United States of America. A painting of George Washington. A flag with forty-eight stars and thirteen stripes. These things had a kind of importance about them that Lila had never even heard of before. She’d thought the world was just hayfields and corn fields and bean fields and apple orchards. The people who owned them and the people who didn’t.’
John Steinbeck’s ‘Grapes of Wrath’ takes the itinerant existence forced on so many by the great depression and makes it epic. Robinson is working within the same landscape and period, but she makes the story deeply personal. This is an unsentimental presentation of a desperate woman in desperate times and yet it is also a measured meditation on love, hope and faith. It is a worthy companion to ‘Gilead’ and ‘Home’ and I can think of no higher praise.