Lila by Marilynne Robinson

27/09/14, The Independent

Twenty-three years after her first novel, Housekeeping, Marilynne Robinson published her second, Gilead, in 2004. Set in 1956 in the tiny eponymous (fictional) town in Iowa, it takes the form of a diary written by the seventy-seven year old Congregationalist pastor, Reverend John Ames, for his seven-year-old son. Tucked away within this testament is the grateful acknowledgement of the grace he receives in the form of a late marriage – Ames is pushing seventy when this occurs – to a woman who walks into his church during one of his Sunday sermons; the son, who is the addressee of the diary, is the fruit of this marriage.

Lila, the third novel in Robinson’s Gilead Chronicles, is the story of that much younger woman, Lila, whom Reverend Ames marries in the winter years of his life. The earliest stage of her life is cloudy; her story really begins when someone called Doll rescues the toddler Lila from neglect and abandonment and goes on the run. Doll reckons that the child will have a fighting chance with her, instead of succumbing to rickets or malnourishment in early childhood. Doll, however, is an itinerant creature, not least for stealing a child, a fact that proves to be her ultimate undoing. Never in one place for very long, she and Lila join a group of vagrants led by a man named Doane. Their life is a hardbitten one of sleeping outdoors, foraging for food, working other people’s cornfields or orchards, of violence and squabbling and serious deprivation, and Robinson brings it to pulsating life in prose of great and luminous beauty.

The story, in one long chapter, but with section breaks, is not told straight. The meeting between Lila and Reverend Ames in the late 1940s, their marriage, her pregnancy come quite early on in the novel and alternate with Lila’s memories of her almost feral past; more of that past is revealed as the book, and her pregnancy, progresses. Uniquely, and almost unbearably, affecting among all this is the tender, fiercely protective and loyal bond between Doll and Lila. We learn how Doll, despite being a wanted woman, decides to stay in Tammany for a whole year so that Lila can go to school and learn basic reading skills and numeracy, and how, much later, Lila fetches up in a whorehouse in St Louis. The shadow of the Great Depression falls over the book.

Lila is the portrait of a woman ground down with shame, with the knowledge of forever being on the outside of things, looking in, not being able to participate, not even having the words for what she feels and thinks, and her eventual inscription into the world of loving humanity. Cleaving close to Lila’s point of view and her interiority, the novel is a miracle of voice.

Gilead was a deceptive novel, hiding its political heart under the beguiling flow of its protagonist’s extraordinary voice. The theological motor that powers Lila is the conflict between Ames’s Calvinist idea of souls lost to salvation and Lila’s more humane and instinctive rejection of any doctrine that would see her beloved Doll as lost, but Robinson keeps this aspect subtle, muffled. Instead, the human story dominates, resulting in a book that leaves the reader feeling what can only be called exaltation.