Friday, 16 January 2015

A revisit too far?

I adored Marilynne Robinson's two previous novels set in the small town of Gilead, Gilead and Home, but it's very difficult for me to pin down precisely why I liked them so much. Rather than impressing me with the usual literary triumvirate of plot, character and style - although both novels have all three in spades, even the plot, subtle as it is - they seemed to go beyond normal tick-boxes. Gilead remains my firm favourite. Whenever I turn back to the musings of the dying John Ames, I feel as if my life is slowing down to a more contemplative speed in which, perhaps, I might become, if not a better person, than a more truthful one. Home lacks this intense and immersive focus, but makes up for it as it widens the cast of central characters to consider the question of forgiveness more deeply as it revisits the return of prodigal son John Ames Boughton, already detailed in Gilead. Told from the point of view of John Boughton's younger sister, Glory, Home covered much of the same ground as Gilead but splendidly reinvented it. For me, it was not quite the reading experience that Gilead was, but then, so few books are. Having loved these two novels so much, you can imagine how excited I was when I heard that Robinson was writing another novel set in Gilead; this time, centring on John Ames's young wife, Lila.

So why did Lila feel to me like a revisit too far? It has been universally acclaimed by critics, and there's certainly no slackening in the quality of Robinson's meditative prose. The difficulty in assessing why Lila didn't quite work for me, whereas Gilead and Home (and Housekeeping, Robinson's debut), did, so well, is because I don't know why those novels have become so important to me. This is a bit of a difficult admission when writing a blog that is meant to assess precisely how books work, but for me, part of the magic of Gilead was that I didn't know why it appealed; and it didn't tempt me to look beneath the bonnet and try to understand its inner mechanisms. There are a few things I can say about why Lila was different. I know that I haven't given it the time and space that it probably needed. I've been so busy with work that I read it in snatched glances, and Robinson's writing deserves more. However, I do feel there were two factors that contributed to its failing to hold me. Firstly, the voice felt too familiar. This seems an odd thing to say when we are used to making the (correct) assumption that fiction tends to include privileged white men and excludes poor women, but one of the things I loved most about Gilead and Home was that I felt that these were voices I had not heard before. Ames may be white, and male, and relatively well-off, but the seriousness with which Robinson explores his connection with his faith was new to me. In contrast, I have read so many novels about women like Lila. This is not to say that Lila is a stereotype - she is very much a character in her own right - but there it is. I found that Lila came to life for me when Ames appeared and dwindled when he was absent, especially in the parts of the novel where Lila recalls her previous life, which felt most familar to me. 

Secondly, perhaps a third retreading of the 'same' ground is a little too much. To be honest, I felt a little resentful - and again, I don't know why - that Lila will be in my head when I next re-read Gilead, and that this is not a perspective that enriches the previous novel. While Gilead and Home overlaid and deepened each other, Lila feels like a distraction, rather than an addition, to the story that Robinson was telling before. And of course, that is precisely what she is; a disruptive force in the sleepy life of this small town, with a story that does not fit with their assumptions and a determination to live her life all the same. (I loved that she asks Ames to marry her, so out of the blue). Normally, I find counter-narratives like this welcome. This time, I wasn't sure. My feeling is that I would have to work out why Gilead meant so much to me to work out why Lila did not.

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