Sunday, 24 January 2016

Post 24: Lila by Marillyne Robinson


January is a grey old month with little to recommend itself. The weather is non-descript to cold, and despite the daffodils bravely nodding their heads near my house, we all know that it is not quite spring. And yet there is a decadence to January that I don't always afford myself at other times of the year; the gift of staying in and using the very drabness of the month as an excuse to read more!  I have the soft chair, the book lined room and I have scandalously decided to leave my work laptop at work where it belongs.....

And this is how I met with Lila.

Nominated for the Man Booker in 2015 and with a glittering of other awards including the Pulitzer in 2005 and the Orange Prize for Fiction in 2009, I am ashamed to say that I had never come across Marilynne Robinson before.  Discussing her in the English department staff room, it seems many others were as ignorant of this novelist as I was. I really don't know how she passed me by.  

And so the Man Booker nominations had me adding her to my basket at the end of last year.  The novel Lila had a pastoral cover and a simple blurb that appealed to me.  And I was not disappointed,  The opening of the novel sees the little girl, Lila rescued from a life that is never fully explained. The opening description of a child thrown outside and left to crawl under the house at night, afraid to go back in and terrified of what she might find in the dark, highlights her neglect.  She is taken by a saviour named Doll who nurses her to health and spends the rest of her life protecting her.

Their lifestyle is alternative. Lila lives on the road, getting work with Doll and their travelling companions.  There is a strong sense of morality among them; no-one steals and no-one is violent.  And yet Doll has a knife, and there is frequent reference to her whetting it sharp.  This symbol ensures that readers never forget that Lila was snatched, and the danger
that someone could find them is ever present.  There is no condemnation of Doll because Lila loves her and Doll loves Lila.

The storytelling is beautiful.  It is lyrical and gentle.  Told mainly from the perspective of Lila in later life, the reader pieces together her childhood, her relationship with Doll and her current situation. Fleeing from a life of prostitution and drudgery following Doll's death, Lila finds herself in a shack in the countryside. Next to the town of Gilead, she goes in for provisions, and she finds herself drawn to the church. Here she meets Reverend Ames whom she describes throughout the novel as "the old man." And it is this relationship that becomes central to Lila's life, as she learns to like him, even to trust him to some extent. Through this, she is free to ask questions of life itself, considering deeply questions of purpose, of salvation and eternity. 

What struck me the most was the gentle portrayal of the Reverend.  He is aware of his own shortcomings, and he carries with him the sorrow of personal grief. He treats Lila with utmost respect from the outset, never judging her, never condemning. I loved the fact that in his faith and in his wisdom he still had questions.  Lila prompts him to face those questions and live with them.  This called to my mind the verse from Hebrews, that faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see. The closing sentence, focalised on Lila, states "Someday she would tell him what she knew." Lila, in the ignorance afforded to her by her upbringing, had little education.  Reverend Ames was the opposite, and yet both added to the understanding of the other. 

The overriding feeling at the end of the novel, is hope.

This was an uplifting read with enough plot to hold interest in Lila and what happened to her at different stages of life. The deeper questions never become dull or overly philosophical because they are woven into relationships between characters.

It was only when I was half way through that I realised that this was the third book of a trilogy.  Speaking to a friend today, I have discovered he has the other two titles.  I will definitely be popping round to pick those up soon.

My next read is The Bookseller of Kabul by Asne Seierstad. If I manage this one in a week, then 2016 will be the best start to a reading year that I have had in along while, totalling 4 in a month.

Leaving my work laptop at school has been an excellent decision!

As always, please comment, suggest other reads and share my blog with reading friends.
Thank you for reading with me.

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