Reviewed by Carmella Lowkis
In her fourth book Marilynne Robinson returns to the quiet Midwest town of Gilead. Although her previous works, Gilead and Home, feature the same setting, it would be inaccurate to call this novel a sequel. Lila succeeds on its own merits, and doesn’t need to be read after its predecessors.
This time around, Robinson revisits the elderly preacher, John Ames, and writes a new young wife for him: Lila. Abandoned by her family as a girl, Lila has lived a life of hardship and toil under the guardianship of a kindly drifter named Doll. Years later, she comes to Gilead and marries John.
Robinson tells Lila’s story through a non-chronological jumble of memories. These can be hard to keep up with at times, but only because of how tangled together they are in Lila’s mind. Past and present become intermingled in a rich kaleidoscope of significant events.
Uniting this piecemeal plot is the voice of Lila. Robinson writes in a tone that falls charmingly between simplicity and cynicism, creating serious emotion and light humour in equal measure.
Despite her flaws, and the grey morality of her past existence, Lila is an endearing protagonist. Her down-to-earth outlook is truly engrossing, and is certainly a large part of the novel’s success.
Robinson writes Lila most successfully in her exchanges with John. We get to watch their relationship develop through conversations about the past, existence, and the meaning of life – things which Robinson also seems to be grappling with in her storytelling. While their journey towards becoming a family is one of the main plots of the novel, their interactions are not like those in a romance: these are clearly two characters falling in love while existing, rather than existing to fall in love. The organic growth of their relationship makes a refreshing change to normal romantic tropes.
I’d recommend Lila to anyone with an appreciation of sedate description and psychological realism. This is a novel that takes its time to think things through, encouraging its readers to do the same.