Luminous Loneliness: Marilynne Robinson’s ‘Lila’

After luxuriating in the exquisite prose of Marilynne Robinson’s Lila, I’m perplexed as to why I’m struggling to write about it. The novel, Robinson’s fourth, is the second one we’ve read in our book group, and maybe it’s no coincidence that while I still remember being profoundly moved by the lyricism of Gilead I remember nothing of the plot.


Lila is the name of the woman whose life and thoughts we are given a window into in the book. A small child neglected, she is left to wail outside the cabin all night, while her parents argue within, until she is taken by a woman called Doll, and raised on a combination of the scant kindness of others, itinerant work, and a steely will to survive. Life is harsh, and living is pared back to the naked essentials. I was struck how in Lila’s world people are not defined by their possessions, and if your existence is reliant on roaming, what you carry with you has to be worth its weight. When Lila is given the knife by Doll

‘it was the only thing Doll had to give her… Doll never was the first one to own anything, and she wasn’t the last either, if she could help it’.

Despite the hardship, Lila is clearly uneasy about the prospect of a settled future with the Reverend Ames. Like a frightened bird, Lila could take flight at any moment from their fledgling relationship. Home offers safety, companionship and respite from the gnawing loneliness of life on the road, yet it comes at the cost of a freedom that is the only thing Lila has ever known.

Through Lila’s tentative and sparse conversations with John Ames, Robinson grapples with the question of the nature of sin and salvation, leaving those questions hanging for us to ponder further, but in a way that makes me suspect she is confident enough in her own faith to do so without needing to offer assurance. While I might not share the same beliefs as Robinson, I enjoyed Lila’s thoughts on what she read and on the substance of life itself. It is these hauntingly beautiful observations of the everyday that raise the novel to greatness. The passage which describes Lila washing her clothes in the river particularly struck me.

Her shirts and her dress looked to her like creatures that never wanted to be born, the way they wilted into themselves, sinking under the water as if they only wanted to be left there, maybe to find some deeper, darker pool. And when she lifted them out, held them up by their shoulders, they looked like pure weariness and regret. Like her own flayed skin. But when she hung them over a line and let the water run out, and the sun and the wind dry them, they began to seem like things that could live.

Now I’ve finished Lila, I’m going to go back and reread Gilead. I’m so intrigued by the character of Lila, her relationship to the elderly Rev. John Ames, and their child, and a quick read of the back cover reminded me that Gilead is written from John’s perspective wanting to write a letter to his young son, knowing that he is approaching the end of his life, and I’m hoping a reread will enrich my intimacy with these quietly intriguing characters as well as provide more luminous prose to immerse myself in.


Working Title/Artist: Alabama Tenant Farmer Wife Department: Photographs Culture/Period/Location: HB/TOA Date Code: Working Date: 1936 mma digital photo #DP109611

While reading Lila, I recalled this photograph called ‘Alabama Tenant Farmer Wife’ by Walker Evans. The raw honest strength of the woman’s expression reminded me of Lila, so I thought I’d include the image here.

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