Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Marilynne Robinson, So Quiet Yet So Powerful

Marilynne Robinson.jpg

Some readers are only in it for the thrill of the chase. Their novels need to move at the speed of light, keep them guessing til the end, give them an adrenalin rush. I'd never say that isn't fun but I've found that, as I'm aging, my tastes tend toward more ruminative literature. Marilynne Robinson's National Book Award finalist, "Lila," (she lost to the devastating short story collection "Redeployment" by Phil Klay), is one such ruminative novel.

Though it is a prequel to her Pulitzer Prize winning "Gilead," it can be read and thoroughly enjoyed on its own. I will, however, defy you, once you finish it, not to want to go back to read how the story of Lila and Rev. Ames plays out. Gilead is the tiny Iowa town where Rev. John Ames has lived and nurtured souls for most of his life. His first wife and only child are buried there. His existence since their untimely deaths has been filled with prayer, reading, and weekly visits with his intellectual sparring partner and childhood friend, "old Boughton", also a minister.

In fact, until he spotted Lila, sodden with rain, dressed in rags, and more than a little rough around the edges, sitting in a pew in his church, he may not have admitted to the deep well of loneliness that afflicted him. The improbable, immediate connection he feels with Lila frightens and shames him. The gap between the ages of Rev. Ames and this itinerant farm worker is formidable, the intellectual gap, one might assume, is even more daunting.

There is little physical action in this haunting novel but oh, the stimulating interior monologue as we listen in on the thoughts, questions, and hopes of Lila and John Ames, is extremely powerful. Excruciatingly slowly, they gravitate toward each other, building a tentative trust that we worry, from what we learn of Lila's past through her reminiscences, could dissolve at any time. Though she has seen the worst of human nature, she has also known the singular love of Doll, the woman who rescued her from orphanhood and raised her to be a street smart survivor.

Ms. Robinson's work is steeped in biblical quotes and verses but non-believers should not be put off. It is heartening and fascinating to listen to Rev. Ames' honest, humorous, and deeply felt responses to the unchurched Lila as he tries to explain the unexplainable mysteries of faith. The topics they tackle, the very meaning of existence, are those that all thinking people contemplate.  Thoughtful readers will feel great joy at being let in on the conversation.

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