Lila, by Marilynne Robinson

This 2014 work was a difficult novel for me to get into. It is the story of a poor migrant, Lila, from the time she is stolen as a baby until she has a baby of her own. But the way author Robinson tells this woman’s story is frustrating. Even though its theme—of love and human understanding, of sacrifice and steadfastness, of moral and spiritual sanctity—is everything I could ask for.

For the story of Lila is structured like a stream of consciousness novel. That is, the narrative moves back and forth, as if in Lila’s mind. But the telling is in the third person. We see into Lila’s mind, but we are not inside Lila’s mind. But even though this approach did not appeal to me, I persevered, because of the critical reputation that all of Robinson’s novels have earned.

This is also largely a story of the underside of life as well as a story of loneliness. As a baby, Lila is stolen by Doll, a woman she remembers fondly throughout the novel. She is grateful to her because Doll saved her from a life of poverty and degradation. She also has fond memories because Doll was a good woman, and educated Lila to be one as well. Her one regret is that she does not know what happened to Doll, after the woman decided that abandoning her would be for Lila’s own good.

There is, of course, a connection between this novel and two of Robinson’s earlier novels, Gilead and Home. Gilead is about a minister, John Ames, and is comprised of a letter he is writing to his son. Home concerns Ames and his friend, a fellow minister, Robert Boughton, who also lives in Gilead. And Lila is the story of the young woman who married the elderly John Ames, and is the mother of the son the minister is writing to in the first novel.

Yes, the connection to the other novels adds depth to one’s understanding, but this work nevertheless stands on its own. It is about Lila and her troubled experience, one of suffering, abandonment, and rescue. However, these are not easy experiences to identify with. And this further hindered my entering into and identifying with this character.

Which was compounded by Lila’s mind jumping around in time. Indeed, so much so that I was confused at times if we were in the present or in the past, and, if in the past, what period in that past. For there are times in which she is in Doll’s care. There are times in which she is surviving in a whorehouse. There are times in which she is in flight, and times in which she arrives in the small Iowa town of Gilead, where she knows no one.

In Gilead where she meets the elderly John Ames. Whereupon, two events took me surprise. And, for me, lacked conviction. Not that the two marry, but that, first, she proposes to him out of thin air, and he considers it for about a page, and then accepts her suggestion. Because, apparently, he is lonely, like her, having lost his wife many decades earlier. Joan Acocella explains this further in The New Yorker. She explains that Lila proposes because she is bold and because she fears she will be abandoned again, just has she has been before. While he is both drawn to her boldness and sees, with her, an end to his own loneliness.

The second development that surprised me was Lila’s becoming pregnant. This event is important to her and is what sustains both her and the novel through its final pages. But there has been no suggestion that love has originally motivated them. It is more that marriage has been convenient for them both. There is a scene in which they are in bed together, she seeking his comfort, but it is after her pregnancy begins. It would have been helpful if this circumspect author had inserted that scene a little earlier.

However, the affection between Lila and the minister is real. We accept that they share much, even come to love one another, and we watch their devotion to their child engage them equally. Moreover, their connection, their humanity, is deepened, when they acknowledge that they do not completely understand each other. Indeed, the final pages are filled with both a human and a spiritual love, as these two sympathetic creatures share with the child the short time, given the minister’s age, they realize they will have together as a family.

Diane Johnson sums up this novel’s seriousness in The New York Times: “Central to all the novel’s characters are matters of high literary seriousness—the basic considerations of the human condition; the moral problems of existence; the ache of being abandoned; the struggles of the aging; the role of the Bible and God in daily life.” These are indeed the hallmarks of Robinson’s earlier works, and are welcome here in a literary world that seldom acknowledges them.

At the end of her review, Johnson says: “Lila is not so much a novel as a meditation on morality and psychology, compelling in its frankness about its truly shocking subject: the damage to the human personality done by poverty, neglect, and abandonment.” I would accept all but the word “compelling.” Entering into this woman’s mind and following her experiences has not for me been compelling. Is this because I am male? I prefer to think not. I prefer to think it is her life of loneliness, of sacrifice, of abandonment, of deprivation that I found so difficult to relate to.

And, of course, I recognize that many woman have faced such situations in our society. But this author did not draw me into this life, even though it offered a shared human experience that included love and sacrifice, tenderness and yearning, and a sense of our spiritual destiny.

I am now curious about Home, yes, but not enough to place it ahead of other novels I wish to read. (February, 2017)

The Quality of Mercy, by Barry Unsworth

This fascinating novel is a powerful sequel to Sacred Hunger, which had earlier won the Booker Prize. It is not necessary to have read that earlier novel to appreciate this 2011 novel, but it does help one to understand the depths of this work if one has done so.

And by that I mean the depths of the main character, Erasmus Kemp, who was the single-minded villain of that first novel, as he pursued and saw killed his first cousin, Matthew Paris, for what he considered acts of piracy and mutiny, but which his cousin and the reader saw as acts of mercy. Namely, taking over a slave ship owned by Kemp’s father, a ship whose captain had ordered sick slaves to be thrown overboard to their death.

I had objected to the portrayal of Kemp at the end of Sacred Hunger, for it evoked a note of self-awareness in this cruel villain that I felt the author had not prepared me for. But now I believe this self-awareness was always there, because Unsworth has made Kemp not only the main character of this novel but also even more aware of what he, Kemp, might term as shortcomings but which the reader sees as a reluctant identification with these men he considers his inferiors.

This sensitivity arises when he confronts Michael Sullivan, one of the crewmen from Sacred Hunger, who was involved in what Kemp called mutiny and piracy; and again, when a poor youth, the miner Michael Borden, sees through what Kemp calls a generous offer for a piece of land the youth owns. Indeed, even the woman Kemp loves, Jane Ashton, detects a latent compassion in him that she believes she can develop if she marries him.

Kemp thus develops into a complex figure. He wants to play a major role in developing British industry—to his own advantage, of course, but also, he claims, to that of the workers and his country. And his single-mindedness remains, meaning he will do this by fair means or foul. Even love-fixed Jane is transfixed by this determination, while less fixed on the means he will use.

It would seem that the author wishes his title, The Quality of Mercy, to apply to Kemp. For it is mercy he shows to both Sullivan and Borden, when he unexpectedly acknowledges their needs. And this response, I suggest, shows that Unsworth wants his reader to extend such mercy to Kemp as well. In fact, he also may be suggesting that this kind of determined but compassionate industrial leader is what this small island relied on to reach its greatness.

On the other hand, and I nearly missed this, the greatest quality of mercy Unsworth seems to show here is toward the slaves themselves. But to me that is less interesting. Because it is so obious. Whereas to apply it to Kemp adds a complexity to his character that enriches this work as literature. I would note that John Vernon in his New York Times review preferred that the author had kept Kemp’s character more simple. He writes, “Kemp was perfect—a tortured monster of obsessiveness.” I obviously disagree.

There are really four stories here at the start of the novel, each one so interesting that we move quite willingly from one to the other. Indeed, I was so confident in the author’s professionalism that I knew eventually these four stories would come together. The first story is that of Sullivan, the crew member who joined in the mutiny, was caught and transported back to England in chains, and then fortuitously escapes from prison and becomes determined to travel north into Durham coal country in order to inform the family of a shipboard colleague that their son has died.

The second story is that of the Borden family in Durham. John the father and his three sons, especially Michael, are fated to work in the mines but dream of escaping that harsh world. The third story is that of Frederick Ashton and his sister Jane, the brother being an active abolitionist determined to abolish slavery in all of England. And the final story, of course, is that of Erasmus Kemp, who brings these stories together, first by suing to receive compensation for the drowned slaves on his father’s lost ship, and then by both his pursuit of Jane and his effort to purchase and modernize the coal mine up north in which the Borden family works.

The reader easily identifies with Sullivan, Michael Borden, and Frederick and Jane Ashton. These are all good people. And Kemp’s interaction with each of them earns him the reader’s respect for a certain integrity, even if not their full sympathy. Indeed, one can detect both sympathy and fascination on the part of the author for this character he has created, so much so that one can foresee still another sequel, this one based on the tension that has been set up between Kemp and Jane Ashton, as she tries to instill in him a greater awareness of the needs of the working poor.

Despite it’s title, the underlying theme of this novel is the rights of property. First, are slaves property? That is what Sacred Hunger was about, and that is what Frederick Ashton is all about. That they are not. And it is also about the workers in the Durham mines. Are they, in effect, the property of the mine owners, since they have no say in the terms of their duties, their wages, their working conditions, or their future lives.

On the other hand, one critic says this is a novel about justice. And this is valid, for the administration of justice revolves around two key trials that are depicted toward the end. But these trials do depend on property rights, and this is the immediate theme that drives Unsworth’ novel, under the overall literary theme of justice.

Unsworth manages to resolve these property issues to a large degree, enough to bring a legitimate resolution to this novel, even if some of its ramifications are left open-ended. Which, as I said, does leave the door open to another sequel. Not that I would require one, but I would certainly read it, for Unsworh has the enviable talent of being able to explore moral and social issues from a richly created past. In the meantime, I will happily search out his other highly praised novels. (January, 2015)

The Casual Vacancy, by J. K. Rowling

This is a good novel. No one should say surprisingly, for Rowling is a born storyteller and a solid technician in this 2012 work. What I admired from the beginning was her creation of life in a small British town, Pagford, from the political confrontations to the family jealousies to the juvenile insecurities. And from the class warfare to the social ills to the generational conflicts.

The novel begins when a pillar of the town, Barry Fairbrother suddenly dies. This calls for a vote to replace him on the parish council—which introduces political conflict, since the dead man wanted to keep the town together rather than exile a poor community to another jurisdiction. To explore this conflict, we meet the families on both sides. There are Howard and Shirley Mollison, who run the council and want to rid the town of the poor, including a local clinic; their son Miles, a candidate following his father’s wishes; and Miles’ wife, Samantha. There are the Prices, whose son Andrew resents his father Simon and his decision to run for the council to take advantage of potential graft. And there is Andrew’s pal Stuart (Fats), whose father, Colby, is running to preserve the policies of the dead man.

Beyond the political intrigue, there is social conflict, centered on the poor Weeden family. Daughter Krystal is a teenager whose mother Terri is a self-centered prostitute and a heroin addict. Krystal adores her three-year-old brother, Robbie, whom her mother neglects. The daughter is the novel’s most fully developed character, and Rowling seems to identify with her insecurities, her contradictions, and yet her sound family sense. The Weedon’s friendly social worker is Kay Bawden, who has a beautiful daughter Gaia. Kay has come to Pagford hoping to find security with Gavin Hughes, a local lawyer. Finally, there is Parminda Jawanda, a doctor with a conscience, a handsome husband, and a plain, insecure daughter. Sukhvinder.

This is a complicated roster of characters, actually eight families, to follow during the town’s political and social intrigue. And it is complicated further by the five children. Andrew is buddies with Fats, and is in love with Gaia, who is best buddies with Sukhvinder. Meanwwhile, Fats has a continuing affair with Krystal, who wants to have a child in order to escape her family. And the still further complication is that each of these five children has a major problem with his or her parents.

In sum, I was impressed and absorbed by this portrait of a town and its families in conflict. But then “The Ghost of Barry Fairbrother” enters, leaving scandalous messages about the parish council and its candidates on the council’s website. Now, the more significant plotting of the novel truly begins, for these messages are being left, we know, by the three children, Andrew, Fats, and Sukhvinder, to revenge themselves on their parents. It is a unique plot device that is credible and certainly is in keeping with modern technology, yet it also reflects, in its way, the hand of the author—an author who has just written a classic series of novels about teenagers, the Harry Potter series.

And, indeed, the rest of this novel revolves around the actions of these five teenagers. The political conflict and election now recedes into the background, except for one argumentative but anti-climactic parish council meeting. The novel’s pace also quickens, as the children’s actions replace the verbal altercations of the adults. The final action centers on the desperate actions of Krystal and their impact on her family and on her fellow teenagers.

As I began reading this novel, it seemed that Rowling was determined to convince critics that she could write a true novel for adults. This came across from her portrait of this town, its political situation, and its various families. I sensed she was now writing from a life she knew, as serious writers do, rather than from a life she imagined. Toward the end, however, while I still considered it a valid, serious novel, it seemed to me that a commercial aspect, an emphasis on plot more than on relationships, was seeping in. Finally, the emphasis on the children at the end seemed to reflect the type of characters, the record has shown, she is most comfortable with.

It is this emphasis on the children at the end that most concerns me. The novel began as a portrait of a town, of its hypocrisies and its prejudices. This legitimately included the frustrations of its teenagers with their parents. But these frustratione began to drive the plot, and the reader gradually isn’t sure where the emphasis is meant to lie. Finally, the action of one teenager to take all the blame for the website messages and the death of another seems insufficiently prepared for, seems insufficiently motivated.

Perhaps the one aspect that I agree with in Kakutani’s very negative Times review is that there are no good characters here that the reader can identify with, as there would naturally be in an average small town. All are intended to come alive through their weaknesses. The social worker Kay is a good person at heart, but she is ineffective, and emerges as inconsequential. And Krystal’s goodness is outweighed by her anti-social rebellion. The result is an expose of this town more than a recreation of it. And a novel that leaves us depressed more than exhilarated, having introduced us to characters we would not really want as friends or neighbors.

On the other hand, the teenagers are more interesting as individuals than the adults. The prejudices of the adults could be considered more stereotypical, whereas the teenagers have their own individual problems and react to one another, and talk to one another, in their own individual way. As a result, we get to know them better, understand them better, and so sympathize with them better, even if we are disturbed by much of their conduct and remain unconvinced by their final actions and final fate.

To sum up, this is an admirable, old-fashioned novel about small-town English life, but it is peopled by unsympathetic characters and somewhat manipulated by the author to convey a message of social injustice and personal hypocrisy. It is dominated in the end by children, with whom she seems more comfortable, and who perhaps reflect the experience and emotions of her own past. (November, 2014)