Friday, 7 August 2015

Lila by Marilynne Robinson

Among the titles on the Man Booker long-list this year is Marilynne Robinson’s novel, Lila, the third book in her Gilead trilogy. The series is named after the fictional town in which it is set and follows characters connected with the Reverend John Ames.

Lila doesn't know her real name as she was kidnapped as a small child by passing drifter. Doll, who rescues her from a life of neglect, gives Lila the mothering she needs, but the pair live a hand-to-mouth existence through the Great Depression, picking up work where they can, and for Lila, the barest smattering of education. Lila is an engaging character because she has a natural intelligence and a will to survive when the odds are stacked against her.

The story weaves in Lila’s past with her arrival as a mature woman in Gilead, taking up residence in an abandoned shack on the outskirts of town. Stealing a bible from the church, Lila discovers the grimmer stories from the Old Testament have a bearing on her own life, and discusses her thoughts with the town’s preacher. John Ames is fascinated by Lila and a gradual courtship develops.

Lila is a novel quite unlike any I have read before. You have a feeling you are reading an American classic and I don’t know when I have come upon such a moving description of poverty and on-going struggle. Robinson’s imagining of Gilead and the terrible dust bowl years is evocative. But it is the characters that stand out – the voices Robinson gives them and her concern for what it means to be human. Lila is a book of hidden depths, but is very readable. You don't have to read the other Gilead books first, but after Lila you will probably want to return to this small Iowa town and its characters.

Posted by JAM

Catalogue link: Lila

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