Bleak and courageous: Lila, by Marilynne Robinson
Review: ‘She is concerned with the ways in which families evolve; the lore, the back history, the hurts and the secrets.’
Pulitzer Prize-winning author Marilynne Robinson. Photograph: Getty
It all began in hardship and raw neglect before it then settled, for many years, into an existence spent on the run that was initially shaped by defiance and ultimately, by a willingness to work. As a small child Lila had been ignored by everyone except a drifter named Doll who fussed over her: “If there was anyone in the world the child hated worst, it was Doll. She’d go scrubbing at her face with a wet rag, or she’d be after her hair with a busted comb, trying to get the snarls out.” Yet it was this woman who saved her by stealing her away from a family that didn’t care.
Marilynne Robinson’s fourth novel and the third in a quasi-Biblical sequence which reads less like a trilogy and are instead fashioned more in the form of variations on the same story, attempts to piece together the earlier life of a diffident character who had been very much a quiet presence in both Gilead (2004) and Home (2008). Her slightly worn face and air of resignation suggest that Lila, the wife of Reverend John Ames, the elderly minister who had married her long years after the tragic deaths of his first wife and their little son, had endured many humiliations before finding her salvation with Ames.
Robinson is a patient storyteller possessed of strongly philosophical and spiritual intent. Her Calvinist belief and her sense of the 16th-century theologian more as an Erasmus-like humanist than as a firebrand preacher, inform the works and much of the discussion that takes place between Rev Ames and his fellow minister and life-long friend Robert Broughton. These three novels look to family as a concept and also to the individuals that create families. She is concerned with the ways in which families evolve; the lore, the back history, the hurts and the secrets. Above all she examines hopes and parental aspiration, the love invested in children and the pressure this places on all concerned, the parent, the child and those who witness the outcome.
The tales unfold with painstaking care, Robinson does not judge her characters, she allows them to do that themselves. They each appear well aware of their respective shortcomings. Lila the woman as first glimpsed in Gilead as a devoted homemaker whose garden is superior to all others, appears dignified and saintly, if not quite at ease. Lila grows the finest fruit and vegetables; she is alert and watchful, living among sternly educated people. She listens and has used the Bible as her teacher. She is the mother of the little boy fathered by Ames. The child is the old man’s reward for a life well-lived and Lila tends them both, a young boy and an ailing husband who is more like a grandfather.
Each of the three novels is self-contained. Yet it may be presumed that readers drawn to this novel will have read the earlier books. The tone of this one is darker and explains the other worldly demeanour of Lila, previously little more than the hard working wife of John Ames. She is a sinner who never really sinned; her only crime was being born poor and unloved. The hero of Lila’s story is Doll, birth-marked, determined to survive and willing to commit murder, which she does. Doll and little Lila live at intervals with a dodgy, travelling commune presided over by an undesirable named Doane. That happened in time past. The adult Lila is tormented by conflicting emotions of gratitude to John Ames and anger at his age as well as her deep resentment against her past with its long spells of loneliness and the vile memories stalking both her dreams and waking hours. During her pregnancy, she confides her secrets to her unborn child.
Again much of the action in Lila, aside from the flashbacks, takes place in Gilead, a fictional town in Iowa. Gilead, the novel - Robinson’s second work of fiction, published 23 years after her debut, Housekeeping - takes the form of a long letter written by John Ames to his young son. Set in 1956, Ames, aware that he will be dead long before his boy reaches manhood, attempts to bequeath a record to the grown man of the future, a living document, which will serve as an intimate introduction and compensate for the years they will be unable to share together. Ames is also a chatty individual, he has a natural curiosity and a wandering mind as well as a quick temper and his many opinions. In addition to all of that, he has spent his life writing sermons, so sermonising comes naturally to him. The novel, Gilead, is a marvel of profundity and humanity. It was awarded the Pulitzer Prize.
In that novel there are glimpses of the calm presence of Lila as seen through the eyes of her adoring husband. He can not believe that she entered his life so late and has given him a son. Ames has an ailing heart and it also serves as a metaphor for the damaged condition of America. Gilead is as much about America as it is about Ames and the long life he knows is about to end. There is another son, Jack, the fallen child of Ames’s friend Broughton who named him, John Ames, in honour of his friend.
In Home, which was published four years later, in 2008, Robinson developed the story of this prodigal son, Jack, and centred the action in Broughton’s household, only a stroll from Ames’s house. The Reverend Broughton is also very old and even frailer than Ames. His youngest daughter Glory, cheated in love, has returned home to tend her father. After an absence of 20 years, Jack suddenly arrives, seeking sanctuary. Much of the narrative consists of the uneasy dialogue exchanged between Glory and the brother she barely knows but is eager to help. It is a tense, fraught narrative; the old man makes clear his love for his wayward son. Frequently overwhelmed by emotion, her own regrets, her dying father and the challenging moods of Jack, Glory often looks to the self-possessed, apparently serene Lila.
All the while Robinson is building towards this novel, told through a third person voice but clearly that of Lila’s measured viewpoint. In it Robinson looks even further back to an America blighted by the Depression when Lila was little: “Their own bad times started when the mule died, two years or so before everyone else started getting poorer and the wind turned dirty.” Although she had lived through it, Lila only heard about the Crash after it happened: “…and she had no idea what it was even after she knew what to call it. But it did seem like they gave it the right name. It was like one of those storms you might even sleep through, and when you wake up in the morning everything’s ruined or gone.”
Much to Broughton’s bemusement Ames conducts a genteel courtship with Lila that is dominated by her candid ambivalence and his grateful wonder. There are moments of humour such as when she asks him to explain the mystery of existence and he can’t. “From hearing him preach. He must have mentioned it at least once a week.” Although Ames resumes the role he had in Gilead, there are generous quotes from Scripture though less theology as in this book he is responding to Lila’s questions, whereas in Gilead he is often debating theological points with Broughton.
Lila is a sombre book, bleak yet courageous. Robinson has given a quiet woman centre stage. It has subtle pauses and expressive silences, a near-impossible feat to achieve in fiction. Time is against John Ames and Lila and their son. Amid the joy there is fierce anger.
In an image of devastating beauty Lila describes the old man taking his little boy fishing. “He had his pole and creel in his hand and you [the boy] in the crook of his arm and he went off down the road in the morning sunshine, striding along like a younger man…he came back an hour later and set the empty creel on the table and said, ‘We propped the pole and watched dragonflies. Then we got a little tired.’ And what a look he gave her, in the sorrow of his happiness.”