Sunday, August 07, 2016

Lila by Marilynne Robinson

This was my 'holiday read' when Sarah and I went to Rome and Venice during the May-June half term break, but it's only now I've had the chance to jot down a few thoughts. 

If Robinson's earlier Gilead novels cover more or less the same timescale, Lila is a kind of prequel. Readers of Gilead and Home may have wondered just how elderly pastor John Ames came to marry the much younger Lila and have a child with her. Damaged and uncultivated, she doesn't exactly conform to the expected pattern of a small town pastor's wife.

Well, this is her story. It's a harrowing story at that. but one that is also touched by grace. Lila is pretty much a novelistic attempt at exploring Ezekiel 16. The chapter with its theme of the Lord's care for an abandoned child is a motif to which Robinson returns again and again as Lila puzzles over the meaning of this disconcerting passage. She was the neglected child, but in good old Ames she found the love that slowly healed her broken soul. Ezekiel's flashes of lightning and peals of thunder reverberate around the book. 

Typical of Robinson the pace is slow and meditative. Gradually the narrative unfolds that throws Lila and the Reverend together. Meanwhile the fragile, yet life-hardened young woman reflects on her troubled past. If you're after a pacey Grisham-style page-turner, then you'd better stick with Grisham. Robinson offers something more captivating and enlightening as Lila and Ames tentatively learn to love and trust each other. 

The novelist offers an insight into the human condition; broken to the point of despair by pain and sorrow, but capable by the grace of God of finding love and restored hope in place of bitterness. Her unflinching vision is more Book of Job than 'Smile, Jesus loves you'. 

Robinson is a self-confessed admirer of John Calvin. John Ames and his dear friend and fellow-minister Robert Boughton are often found discussing the finer points of the Reformer's theology. But for Robinson it's Calvin as reinterpreted by Karl Barth. Ames falters when Lila presses him on whether unrepentant sinners will be condemned to judgement. Lila's view of heaven towards the end of the book seems to edge in the direction of apokatastasis, going beyond what Calvin (and the Bible for that matter) would sanction. 

I wonder whether this will be the last we see of Robinson's Gilead? She can't seem to drag herself away from the place and its world of characters who, although flawed, damaged, and questioning, are not beyond the touch of grace. Just like us. 

Inspired by our previous holiday destinations I plan to pack Dynasty: The Rise and Fall of the House of Caesar, by Tom Holland and Venice: Pure City, by Peter Ackroyd when (God willing) we head for the Algarve later this week. Also Iain Murray's latest biography, J. C. Ryle: Dare to Stand Alone. 


Gary Benfold said...

Would you recommend starting the series with this one, or one of the others?

Guy Davies said...

In order of publication would be best, I think. Gilead, Home, Lila. That's the way I did it, anyway. The first novel raises questions that are answered (at least in part) by the others.