Marilynne Robinson isn’t a prolific writer, but she is a great one. Her latest offering, Lila, continues her exploration of the fictional town of Gilead, focusing this time on the wife of the Reverend John Ames. Lila appeared as a side character in both Home and, in a more prominent position, in Gilead so it was lovely to return to her here and discover her perspective. In fact I think this is the most beautiful, most stirring and poignant book of the three.
Lila’s story is filled with loneliness and absence. From the beginning, Lila has been rejected, cast out, as we learn in the opening sequence:
“The child was just there on the stoop in the dark, hugging herself against the cold, all cried out and nearly sleeping. She couldn’t holler anymore and they didn’t hear her anyway, or they might and that would make things worse. Somebody had shouted, Shut that thing up or I’ll do it! and then a woman grabbed her out from under the table by her arm and pushed her out onto the stoop and shut the door and the cats went under the house. They wouldn’t let her near them anymore because she picked them up by their tails sometimes. Her arms were all over scratches, and the scratches stung. She had crawled under the house to find the cats, but even when she did catch one in her hands it struggled harder the harder she held onto it and it bit her so she let it go. Why you keep pounding on that screen door? Nobody gonna want you around if you act like that. And then the door closed again, and after a while night came.”
The child Lila is taken up by a woman named Doll, who wraps her in a shawl and rescues her. It’s apparent that Doll’s actions save Lila’s life, but from that point they live on the road as Doll avoids Lila’s family who, unbeknownst to Lila, keep following after them, less bothered about the child than the insult to their honour of Doll taking her.
The story is told in a series of recollections. At the point we meet Lila the woman she is married to the Reverend John Ames, a man much older than she is, and expecting a child. Doll, who was like a mother to Lila, is long gone. Lila who had lived her life on the road, who had worked for a period in a whorehouse, struggles with trust and is constantly on her guard for the time when the Reverend will cast her out, as others have, preparing herself to make the next move out of this town where people know too much about her and report on her every move. But the Reverend loves her (if you’ve read Gilead you will know this) and slowly Lila moves towards an acceptance of her new life.
As always there is a religious element to the story. John Ames is a religious man (not surprisingly, given he’s a Reverend) and has lived in a religious family his whole life. Lila comes to him a vagrant, an untrusting (and perhaps untrustworthy, though I think it is quite apparent how trustworthy she is) woman, a whore, a woman who doesn’t enter churches for fear she’ll be ripped off. An un-baptised woman, who the Reverend baptises and then spends considerable effort trying to wash the baptism off. Through Lila we see the church, the Bible, its rituals and beliefs through a more naturalistic point of view. Lila is horrified at the idea that Doll and the others from her wandering family won’t be waiting for her in heaven because in their ignorance they were not baptised. Yet at the same time she reads the Bible and find her life in it, albeit in the most unlikely seeming places.
There’s a lot to take in, yet it is easy because Lila is so beautifully, so honestly written. The voice throughout the book is extremely authentic, you really feel like you are listening to Lila relay her story. She is an astonishing character. She is honest, kind and unfettered by convention. She believes in love, yet has experienced it so little. She craves it to the point that she imagines stealing the child of a fellow prostitute once it’s born, as she was once stolen. Her plans are subverted and yet, in the end, she has a child of her own. The presence of this child forces her to confront her lack of trust, her inability to take root. Much of her story centres around the idea of the lost child, as she describes here when reflecting on a time when a woman (albeit kindly) mistakenly believed she’d had an illegal abortion and offered to help her:
“She’d been thinking about herself hiding that filthy dress under her coat the best she could, all sweaty even out in the cold, knowing anybody who saw her would think what that woman did. Guilty of the saddest crime there is. Nobody surprised to know she had that scrap of paper in her pocket. Old shame falling to her when it had been worn to rags by so many women before her. She could almost forget that the shame wasn’t really hers at all, any more than any child was hers, not even a child cast out and weltering in its blood, God bless it. Well, that was a way of speaking she had picked up from the old man. It let you imagine you could comfort someone you couldn’t comfort at all, a child that never even had an existence to begin with. God bless it. She hoped it would have broken her heart if she had done what that woman thought she had, but she was hard in those days. Maybe not so hard that she wouldn’t have left it on a church step. How did that woman know it wasn’t back at her room, bundled in a towel and crying for her, waiting for her voice and her smell, her breast? The sound of her heart. God bless it. And she so desperate to give it comfort, aching to. Frightened for it, just the sight of so much yearning reddening a little body, darkening its fact almost blue. Maybe that was weltering.”
It is a beautiful story, humane and thoughtful. It is similar, in many ways, to my favourite of Robinson’s works, Housekeeping, which explores the issue of vagrancy in more depth, though more coldly. Yet Lila is such a warm book, it is honest and true, it asks us to think about the nature of religion and how it applies to the innocent, those not touched by church teaching or doctrine. It asks us to think about the nature of compassion, about the idea of sin (original and not). It asks us to think about judgement and what that means. Lila doesn’t judge. She is compassionate. She is distrustful yet honest. She tries not to tell lies, even when telling the truth feels like a lie. She is uneducated, but that doesn’t make her unknowing. She is the outcast who comes back into the fold through the love of a sinner and a man of the church. It is an unlikely story, stunningly told. A beautiful, soulful book.
Lila receives an open-hearted 9 out of 10 Biis.