Lila, a novel by Marilynne Robinson

Lila’s voice is the gem in Marilynne Robinson’s latest novel, Lila. More than the plot, Lila’s stream-of-conscious reflections propel the novel. As I followed her thoughts I found them constantly shifting from her past to her present with no warning. But because Robinson is so gifted and was so careful in her writing, the experience was not jarring. The novel moves along as peacefully as Lila’s river.

Lila’s thoughts were open to me from page one. Her deepest reflections were free for me to consider– by this Robinson creates a connection between the reader and Lila that is intimate and almost secretive. Robinson invites us to sit right next to Lila in the doorway of her cabin, feeling her chilled skin. We know how cold she is; we experience her loneliness. We walk with Lila in her various gardens, through Gilead, beyond Gilead through the brutality of her childhood. This brutality claws against new rumors of what might be good and pure.

But trust is all but impossible for Lila, and safety is a pipedream. Yet when Lila sees the preacher, the love within him calls to the goodness deeply seated within herself, a remnant that the hard road could not kill. Was this goodness present in Lila at her birth, her birth from her lonely-mother? Or was the good planted when Doll wrapped her in the shawl and tenderly rescued her? Robinson doesn’t answer this for Lila, and maybe it is arrogance to try to answer: Is goodness only bestowed on us or is it mined from our souls?

Lila is such a rich book. Lila, Gilead and Home are a (so far) trilogy of novels that a person could spend hours and probably a doctorate research studying, pulling back layers and discussing themes. But what I keep coming back to these last few days is the darkness of loneliness and the light of community. Lila had every reason not to trust anyone, but she was drawn to the pastor’s love like a moth to a candle. While she can’t trust, she doesn’t resent the imperfect offerings of the Gilead townspeople, in part because she has goodness in her soul, and in part because, after wandering the roads and being rejected from warm firesides, she needs the fellowship like food and shelter.  
Lila is not a page turner. Robinson’s language is gleaned down but poetic. For me each page was like a small meal, and the themes were like flavors brilliantly blended together. Lila’s reflections were a gift of peace, and as the time of being thankful approaches, I find I’m grateful for them.

~Sarah Dwelle

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