Monday, 2 November 2015

Lila by Marilynne Robinson

There are books that draw the emotion out of you. Historical romances that leave you in a heap of tears. Thrillers that sheer your nails down to the quick. These are good books – I hope my Shaman Mysteries can cause such reactions in people.

Connected  by Kasey McMahon 
fabricates a networked goddess 
out of Ethernet cables.
But there are also books – rarities – that draw emotion into you. Such books often leave you feeling as you never have before and words cannot aways express such emotions, but feel like the bundles of cables inside telecommunication boxes. Not only are these books rare, they are usually destined to become classics.

I’ve come to reading Marilynne Robinson a little late in the day. She has already been awarded the Pulitzer Prize, the Orange Prize and was long-listed for the Booker with Lila, her fourth book, which I’ve just finished.  By the end of this intense ride into her work, I realized it might have enjoyed it even more if I’d started at the beginning.

Robinson’s last three books has become a trilogy set in the fifties, focused on the Iowan town of Gilead, where John Ames, the preacher, has lived all his life. The first book is a posthumous letter from the elderly John Ames to his young son. The second book is an account of Ames’ friend and godson. We meet all these characters in book three, Lila, which tells the story of Lila, Ames’ wife. 

Lila, perhaps in her thirties, blows into town when Ames is 67 and widowed. She has spent her entire life so far on the road and has no idea even who her father is. There’s a knife hidden down her garter which has its own gruesome story, and she’s living in a little den by the river, where she’s hidden the few pounds in her possession. Ames becomes alive in Lila’s presence and marries her
“I felt as though I recognised you somehow,” he tells Lila. “It was a remarkable experience. It was.” She says: “But you don’t really know nothing about me.” 

 Marilynne Robinson 
Photo: Ulf Andersen
Looking into the photo of Marilynn Robinson, I can see in her face how it is possible that she can write with such a heightened intensity, with the elegance of a poet and the understanding of a philosopher. She has a regal look, which feels both humble and full of humour. That face promises great writing, of depth and breadth, and Lila answers that promise, filling me, as I’ve said, with feelings I could not express in words. Something like longing, perhaps. Something like death and birth. As a Christian, Robinson is a sophisticated thinker. Although this is the story of a fallen woman saved by a minister of the church, there is nothing pious about it. Instead, it is open and subtle and passionate. I can’t guess what the writer meant Lila to be ‘about’, but to me it looks at how we exist in the world for just such a short time, and how our spirits respond to that. 

Anatole Broyard wrote of Robinson in The New York Times: “It’s as if, in writing…she broke through the ordinary human condition with all its dissatisfactions, and achieved a kind of transfiguration.”

Lila is not a book with a complex plot, although its structure is elaborately folded into Lila's past, which Ames does not know about, and the present, which builds a surprising amount of tension out of Lila’s restlessness, now pregnant with her husband’s child. All her life she has survived by keeping society at bay, and still considers running away. “I don’t trust nobody,” Lila says, and Ames replies: “No wonder you’re tired.”

I have been missing something from my life, and that thing is reading Marilynne Robinson. I’m so glad I spotted her on the long list for the Man Booker. How Lila failed to make the transfer to the short list is a puzzle  – the Guardian described it as ‘the biggest surprise’. But I doubt Robinson is unduly worried. For a start, she’s recently been presented with a National Humanities Medal by Barack Obama. For another, she doesn’t look the sort.

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