Marilynne Robinson is one of the most careful writers working today, in the purest sense of the word: there is more care put into every syllable of a Marilynne Robinson novel than in many shelves put together. Her publishing history and subsequent awards prove the point. Her first three novels received the Hemingway/PEN Award and Pulitzer shortlist, the National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize, and the Orange Prize, respectively. Awards and acclaim are important to recognize with Robinson, as her career has been so stunningly lauded, but the experience of reading her work is more precious still.
Her fourth novel, Lila, is set in the same town, in the same family, as 2004’s Gilead. It provides the backstory for the title character, whose hard-won life brings her to the tiny town of Gilead, Iowa, and ties her fate to the elderly town preacher, John Ames. Lila is an immensely fascinating, mysterious character, and Robinson gives her hundreds of pages to spool out fragments of her past. Some parts remain unclear, either because they cause Lila too much pain to recall, or because she doesn’t know the truth herself. It’s an incredibly ambitious move by Robinson as a novelist, to frame a book entirely around a narrator who refuses to tell her own story. But it works. Lila is fierce, and proud, and wholly self-reliant, and is gifted with Robinson’s unparalleled eye for observation and insight. When she does recall some piece of her history, or as she contemplates her present circumstance, the keen edge of detail is cutting.
Lila is a novel about a particular woman and her particular story. It’s also about how life can settle around a person like dust, if they sit still long enough. It’s about having an innate sense of being different, even while working to fit in and avoid notice. It’s about the tenuous ties of family, and how close any given person ever is to being entirely alone in the world. Perhaps more than anything, it’s about, as every Robinson novel is, “the wildness of things.” Lila comes to the end of her dangerous, peripatetic life, and starts to settle, but her heart is ever wandering. No writer more than Robinson can do justice to a restless spirit.