Marilynne Robinson – Lila (4 stars)

Third novel set in Gilead is a moving exploration of existence, love and the inevitability of loneliness

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Marilynne Robinson – Lila

(Virago)

Lila is the third of Marilynne Robinson’s novels to be set in the fictional Iowa town of Gilead and tells the story of the ageing Reverend John Ames and his much younger wife. Readers first met this pair in Robinson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Gilead, with Lila’s mysterious past marking her out as an outsider in the restrained, ordered town.

Her story is told in two interwoven strands. One charts her present life in Gilead, the other alternates with memories of her rough, difficult past. Rescued as a toddler by feisty drifter Doll, Lila’s past is that of hand-to-mouth survival, enduring the Great Depression but losing everyone she loves through violence and deprivation. The sections of the book which detail her burgeoning relationship with Ames brilliantly depict two lonely, damaged people finding comfort in one another.

Widely regarded as one of the best contemporary American authors, there was a 24-year gap between Robinson’s first novel – the Pulitzer-nominated Housekeeping (1980) – and her second, Gilead. And like her other fictions, there’s much meditation on the meaning of existence in Lila. She questions Ames’ faith in God’s kindness when there’s such suffering in the world, while he grows conflicted about not being able to fully answer her queries. But they find the possibility of hope and grace in their shared understanding of the essential loneliness of our human condition.

Lila is a deeply affecting exploration of existence, love and the inevitability of loneliness. And although enriched by the two preceding books, it has the strength, beauty and originality to be read, enjoyed and appreciated as a standalone work. Written in beautiful, poetic prose, it’s a remarkable achievement in voice and place and one that is likely to leave readers wanting more.

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