If there were a harvest festival to honour the bounty of the autumnal book crop, the choir would be in especially good voice this year. There is much cause for rejoicing, with work from Martin Amis, Hilary Mantel, Will Self, Margaret Atwood, David Mitchell, Ali Smith, Sarah Waters. Oddly enough in these secular days, a bookish vicar could glean a sermon from any one of three new novels — by Ian McEwan, Michel Faber and Marilynne Robinson — in each of which the Bible is central. Faber’s book is said to be a science-fiction caper in which the holy book is exported to another planet, where alien inhabitants give it an enthusaistic reception. McEwan’s is a rationalist refutation of literalist Bible reading. Marilynne Robinson’s stance is likely to be the most subtle, measured and intellectually engaging.
There isn’t another writer like Marilynne Robinson, but a close equivalent can be found in the films of Terrence Malick, especially Days of Heaven. The style might best be described as ecstatic pastoral and is distinguished by an unreliable narrative which mimics memory by being full of unaccounted gaps, while yielding moments of startling clarity and loveliness. It is opaque and vivid at the same time. Long periods of the characters’ lives go unexplained, but we come to know them by their thoughts, their conversations, their deep sense of connection to the natural world. As with Malick, a collection of images stays with you: dandelion-yellow light spreading over a green field, a child abandoned on the steps of a church, an eddy in a clear brown river.
Lila is a really beautiful book: beautiful prose, beautiful story; morally beautiful, too. After reading it the world seems more dazzling, fuller of wonder and mystery than it did before, as if you were newly in love. I wish I could persuade everyone who ever buys a book to read this one, but I am aware of dissenters. In a career of 30 years, this is only Robinson’s fourth novel: for every reader who counts the days until her next book, there is another who simply cannot see the point. It may be that her subjects sound unpromising: three of the four, this one included, are about provincial American clergymen. Then there’s the pace. The stories take their time, assembling themselves slowly as you go along.
Lila dawdles, certainly. It requires close attention. Which is not to say that it is short of incident: there’s a knifing, a brothel, a kidnapping. There is birth, marriage and death and, very possibly, redemption. Above all, it’s a fantastic love story. The dialogue between the lovers is utterly brilliant, capturing all the sweet awkwardness that occurs when strong feeling threatens to be overwhelmed by huge hope and short acquaintance. These two characters know they are each other’s best chance to be happy on this earth and Robinson does them the service of not trivialising them. The novel may be unabashedly serious, but it is never stodgy. As Lila herself thinks: ‘Life on earth is difficult and grave, and marvellous.’
There is only one false note in the whole book, when a peculiarly American — almost Disneyesque — urge to round things off nicely gets the better of Marilynne Robinson. Right at the end, Lila steps out of character and says ‘I love you’. But how many novels have only three words wrong? So great is my conviction that this book is almost perfect that I’m prepared to make a pledge: if you dont like it, get in touch and I’ll send you a book from my own shelves to compensate.
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