Lila by Marilynne Robinson - review by Joanna Kavenna

Joanna Kavenna

Balm for Gilead



Virago 261pp £16.99 order from our bookshop

Theories of reality abound. Many are dismissed, while others become dominant and even, for a time, unquestionable. Cartesian dualism, 19th-century materialist science, hyper-subjective modernism, Einsteinian relativity, the Borgesian realms of quantum physics: these are defined as ‘secular’ realities, though all require a leap of faith. Then there are the ‘religious’ realities of prevailing creeds. The novelist, essayist and theologian Marilynne Robinson defines the dominant reality of our age as ‘materialism’ – the notion that the ‘physical world that is manifest describes reality exhaustively’. In essays and non-fiction works such as Absence of Mind (2010), Robinson praises the dynamic uncertainties of contemporary physics, while berating Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett et al for their belief that ‘science has revealed the world as a closed system’. Meanwhile, Robinson continues, ‘the mind, as felt experience, has been excluded from important fields of modern thought’. Like Whitman – or Nietzsche, or so many theologians, or so many modernists – Robinson emphasises subjective, ‘felt’ experience or ‘inwardness’.

Anti-materialism can of course be nondenominational; Virginia Woolf, for example, defined ‘spiritualism’ as the desire to reveal ‘the flickerings of that innermost flame’. Yet Robinson cites her anti-materialism in relation to Christianity; she is a self-professed Congregationalist and occasional preacher, and many of her fictional characters are preachers and Congregationalists

Sign Up to our newsletter

Receive free articles, highlights from the archive, news, details of prizes, and much more.

Follow Literary Review on Twitter