Reviews — From the November 2014 issue

Everyday Grace

Marilynne Robinson’s unsaved

Download Pdf
Read Online

Discussed in this essay:

Lila, by Marilynne Robinson. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 272 pages. $26.

About ten years ago I stood with the novelist Marilynne Robinson, whom I was writing a profile of, at a church in Iowa that she had never been inside but which she had spent many years imagining her way into. A white clapboard building with red doors, it was the model for John Ames’s church in Gilead, where the elderly preacher looks up one day to see Lila, the young woman whom he falls in love with. It was clear that the spot satisfied Robinson; it had, as she put it, a “density of presence.” The same could be said of her own novels, which are deceptively quiet on the surface, but turbulent within. Though dramatic things happen — a teenage girl runs away from home with her aunt, a prodigal son returns home years after his neglected daughter dies, a former whore marries a Congregationalist preacher — the books are so inward-gazing that they feel almost uneventful and resolutely full of the everyday, the way most of life does. What one remembers is their luminous grace and the mood of wonder at “our fantastic condition of mortality and impermanence,” as one character in Gilead puts it.

Illustration by Simon Pemberton

Illustration by Simon Pemberton

If it’s one of the tasks of a novelist to allow us to see the mysteries of existence more clearly, few American writers at work today do this as well as Robinson. Perhaps this is because she, like Cormac McCarthy (whom in other ways she hardly resembles), has an idiosyncratic, visionary sensibility and is deeply invested in American history. (In Home, it feels shockingly contemporary when two of her characters purchase a black-and-white TV.) She is a liberal Protestant who stalwartly — and unfashionably — champions the work of John Calvin, and her strenuous moral seriousness has put her out of step with other writers of our time (if not with the readers or critics who have celebrated her books). Then, too, she is a preternaturally gifted lyrical writer, steeped in the rhythms of Shakespeare, Melville, and the King James Bible.

But it’s a duality in her work that truly sets her apart: while her polemical non-fiction presents a stern (even obstinate) view of American history, her fiction presents one of the most intuitive, absorbing, welcoming views of the profound ambiguities of character I know. She seems to have a sneaking sympathy with her nonbelievers and her struggling reprobates, to be able to understand what it might be like to resist a Christian worldview; indeed, there’s something nearly pagan in her savoring of the natural world and the pleasures of being an outsider. These are the traits especially on display in her new novel, Lila.

Previous PageNext Page
1 of 4

You are currently viewing this article as a guest. If you are a subscriber, please sign in. If you aren't, please subscribe below and get access to the entire Harper's archive for only $23.99/year.

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Download Pdf
Share
’s most recent book is Once: Poems (W. W. Norton).

Get access to 169 years of
Harper’s for only $23.99

United States Canada

THE CURRENT ISSUE

September 2019

The Wood Chipper

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Common Ground

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Love and Acid

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Black Axe

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

Close

You’ve read your free article from Harper’s Magazine this month.

*Click “Unsubscribe” in the Weekly Review to stop receiving emails from Harper’s Magazine.