With a range of diverse and thoughtful novels, Marilynne Robinson is a household name for many and somewhat of a celebrity in the literary world.
Although her first book was published in 1980, Robinson spent twenty years writing non-fiction sporadically, until 2004 when she released her second novel Gilead, which won the Pulitzer Prize and was followed by Home, in 2008, the winner of The Orange Prize for Fiction. With the Midas touch for fiction, her fourth in the series, Lila has followed suit and has been nominated for the Man Booker Prize 2015.
Set in the isolation of Gilead in America’s Midwest, Lila follows the adulthood of a troublesome runaway girl, who is torn between longing for her vagabond past and the safety of her domestic, family life. Indeed as the novel delves further into Lila’s life, it becomes apparent that her upbringing on the road has left her completely unable to coexist alongside her new community and her God-loving husband.
What Robinson is able to achieve through a single life in Lila is remarkable. As a reader you are held captive by the poetic language in which the story of a girl’s life is made both heartbreakingly sad and insatiably attractive. The life of a vagrant, roaming the expansive Midwest is not portrayed romantically, however we are given a sense of freedom that is stolen by rigid normality. Lila is raggedy, malnourished and uneducated before she arrives in Gilead, yet it is clear that her gentrification into part of mainstream society has left her shackled to a community she does not understand. As the two versions of Lila’s life run parallel in the novel, the comparison between nomad and minister’s wife is pressed upon the reader at every turn. Lila becomes more than just one life; she is a decision between conformity and isolation, a decision that the reader is encouraged to ponder as the plot unravels.
There is something oddly reassuring about the regularity and the interconnectivity of Robinson’s fiction. All three of her 21st century novels have been released in four-year intervals and are threaded together by their mid-west setting and thematic congruity. It is as if Robinson is mapping the social history of a place that time forgot. The town Gilead, in which all three novels are set, seems unremarkable in many ways, however through the struggle of her protagonists, we are given a scale model of America’s turbulent social and economic history, as well as Robinson’s own reflection on religious morality. In a classic story of identity, Robinson has quietly weaved her pensive and philosophical musings on American society and history that both affect every character in the novel but are only visible to the reader.
What Robinson has given us in Lila is both a girl’s tragic and sanguine search for herself, as well as the fascinating insight into an America that is unchartered by popular fiction.
Image: Ginny (ginnerobot) flickr.com