LILA by Marilynne Robinson
Lila is the third in Marilynne Robinson’s trilogy of novels that takes place in the small Midwestern town of Gilead, and both Gilead (2004) and Home (2008) explore the lives and friendship of two Iowa preachers. In this latest novel, Lila, the wife of the preacher, John Ames, tells her own story, earning an unqualified spot on my Books I Love bookshelf.
Lila’s life in Gilead begins when she enters the town church to shelter from the rain and first sets eyes upon her future husband, John Ames. Flashbacks to Lila’s past weave through the narrative, and as she struggles with loneliness, belonging, and faith, Lila’s past remains potent and alive.
In the opening scene of the novel Lila, as a child, sits “on the stoop in the dark, hugging herself against the cold, all cried out and nearly sleeping.” She is rescued, or stolen, by Doll, an itinerant worker who sometimes stays in the house where Lila lives. Doll takes Lila up in her arms, wraps her in a shawl, and carries her into the night, becoming Lila’s source of solace, strength and protection. Doll is also a murderess, but in Lila’s world these contradictions and complexities are nothing less than what it means to be human. The same might be said for us. As Lila tries to reconcile the Doll that she knows with the world in which they both live, she discovers, alongside the pain and the hurt, a certain grace. Grace is rarely easy, but as Marilynne Robinson said in a New York Times interview, “Being and human beings are invested with a degree of value that we can’t honor appropriately. An overabundance that is magical.”
One feels this abundance in Lila. As Lila and Doll move from town to town seeking farm work where they can find it, they “knew what time of year it was when the timothy bloomed, when the birds were fledging.” This connection with nature grounds Lila, and it also provides her with a transcendent beauty. When Lila hopes that John Ames will visit her in her squatter’s cabin in the woods in the morning, it is because “those little white moths fluttering over it made that raggedy old meadow seem almost like a garden.”
Biblical references weave through the story, and the ragtag garden outside of Gideon reflects not only the Garden of Eden but also the garden in Ezekiel, which is the book from the Old Testament that Lila chooses to read, suggesting, perhaps, that there is beauty enough in our own imperfect world for those broken, or open, enough to see. Beauty and ugliness, loneliness and belonging, pain and solace exist side by side in Lila, balanced on the fine blade of truth.
Lila knows this, and later in the novel, when Doll bequeaths her knife to Lila, the same knife that has provided food for them, and has also been used to kill, Lila understands it as “a potent thing. Other people had houses and towns and names and graveyards. They had church pews. All she had was that knife.”
As much as she’s unwilling or unable to give up the hard edge of her doubt, however, Lila is a seeker. When she is married to John Ames and carrying his child, John Ames asks why she chooses to read the Book of Ezekiel. “That’s a pretty sad book. I think. I mean, there’s a lot of sadness in it. It’s a difficult place to begin.” Lila responds, “It’s interesting. It talks about why things happen.”
It takes courage and a certain audacity on the part of Marilynne Robinson to talk about faith in a postmodern world, but as Lila attempts to make sense of Doll’s life and her own within the context of her evolving beliefs, her voice, though not formally educated, is intelligent and direct. When she and John Ames share passages from the bible it is not to proselytize, but to tell stories as difficult and true as those they’ve each experienced. “I’m going to keep you safe,” John Ames tells her. “And you’re going to keep me honest.” She does much the same for the reader.
Lila is part parable, part testament, but it’s also a love story, and the romance between Lila and John Ames is sweet and moving. John Ames is in his seventies when he and Lila marry, and after having lost his wife and young child years ago, he thought he would end his life alone. Lila is his miracle. After she agrees to marry him, John Ames baptizes Lila beside the river in a scene that resonates with those other river baptisms handed down through time, from John the Baptist to Jesus to us. “‘I don’t trust nobody,’ Lila says. ‘I can’t stay nowhere. I can’t get a minute of rest.’” John Ames replies, “‘Well, if that’s how it is, I guess you’d better put your head on my shoulder, after all.’ She did. And he put his arms around her.”
Themes of water, birth, renewal and redemption surface and resurface throughout the story, recollecting the opening moments in the novel. When she recalls the moment she was taken by Doll, Lila “knew it couldn’t have been the way she remembered it, as if she were carried along in the wind, and there were arms around her to let her know she was safe, and there was a whisper at her ear to let her know that she shouldn’t be lonely…they sat on the ground, on pine needles, Doll with her back against a tree and the child curled into her lap, against her breast, hearing the beat of her heart, feeling it. Rain fell heavily.”
The whisper that Lila heard in her ear echoes the voice of God. Not some distant God in a heaven that a character in another of Marilynne Robinson’s novels described as “a place where I have always known I would not be comfortable”, but a God who might exist right here on earth, providing a mercy not without struggle, but true.
In Robinson’s essay, “Psalm Eight”, she writes that we all “exist in relation to experience, if we attend to it and if its plainness does not disguise it from us, as if we were visited by revelation”. One suspects that this is a sentiment that Lila might understand.
With its luminous, startling prose and remarkable characters, Lila is a story to read slowly and to savor. Novels like this do not come along very often, and when they do, they are worth cherishing.