Lila
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Lila

Marilynne Robinson

Lila, homeless and alone after years of roaming the countryside, steps inside a small-town Iowa church-the only available shelter from the rain-and ignites a romance and a debate that will reshape her life. She becomes the wife of a minister and widower, John Ames, and begins a new existence while trying to make sense of the days of suffering that preceded her newfound security.

Neglected as a toddler, Lila was rescued by Doll, a canny young drifter, and brought up by her in a hardscrabble childhood of itinerant work. Together they crafted a life on the run, living hand-to-mouth with nothing but their sisterly bond and a lucky knife to protect them.

But despite bouts of petty violence and moments of desperation, their shared life is laced with moments of joy and love. When Lila arrives in Gilead, she struggles to harmonize the life of her makeshift family and their days of hardship with the gentle worldview of her husband which paradoxically judges those she loves.

Revisiting the beloved characters and setting of Marilynne Robinson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Gilead and Orange Prize-winning Home, Lila is a moving expression of the mysteries of existence.

Review

In Lila, Marilynne Robinson returns to Gilead – the setting of her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Gilead and the Orange Prize-winning follow-up Home – and to the characters that reside in this secluded town of refuge and religion. In the newest instalment of this suite, we see the Reverend John Ames, the letter writer of the epistolary Gilead, through the eyes of his new bride, Lila. In the previous novels Lila hovers on the periphery, a seeming paragon of quiet dignity. In Lila, we learn of her life before Gilead. Neglected as a baby and kidnapped as a child by the troubled but fiercely loyal Doll, Lila has led a nomadic life of odd jobs and hard work. She roams the country with Doll and a ragtag bunch of fellow drifters who become a family of sorts. When a murder separates her and Doll, Lila is on her own for the first time and is left to use the skills learnt on the road to forge a new life for herself.

In the town of Gilead, Lila finds shelter after a lifetime of roaming and homelessness. At the centre of Lila is the story of her struggle to accept the safety of this town and the adoration of her new husband, Ames. Their relationship is tentative, playful and untrusting – neither party is convinced that Lila will be able to stay put long enough for their baby to be born. Robinson handles the uncertainty and affection skilfully.

Read alone, Lila is a beautiful work of fiction. It is a stunning tale of acceptance, trust and hesitation. Read as part of a trio with Home and Gilead, the book becomes an exquisitely nuanced work. It is a layered and considered representation of small-town America, and the lives lived within.


Brigid Mullane is a freelance reviewer.

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