What strikes me most about Lila, Marilynne Robinson’s fourth novel and the third set in the fictional town of Gilead, is the contrast between style and substance. Lila has lived a life of abject poverty and deprivation, a life so poor in all senses that it could have made for difficult, even laborious reading. Instead Robinson has created a story of hope and forgiveness, with Lila – strong, smart and good – at its luminous centre.
We first meet Lila as a child, covered in dirt and scratches and left in the dark on the stoop of the house where the adults sleep. We are given the child’s perspective here: Lila teases the cats under the house until in their escape they scratch her, and the adults are anonymous, hard-edged and violent; all except mysterious fierce-hearted Doll, who one evening steals Lila away into the forest, where it begins to rain. Robinson writes, ‘And then 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. Big drops spattered them sometimes. Doll said, “I should have knowed it was coming on rain. And now you got the fever.” But the child just lay against her, hoping to stay where she was, hoping the rain wouldn’t end.’
This passage is reminiscent of infant bonding: the baby against the breast, hearing the mother’s heartbeat and recognising it as the constant reassuring sound of the womb. Doll becomes Lila’s surrogate mother, and Lila’s strong attachment to Doll sustains her through all the deprivation of their itinerant life, wandering from job to job and camp to camp until the destructive time of the Great Depression, what Lila knows only as the Crash.
After a few pages, encompassing this first scene of Doll’s ‘abduction’ of Lila and a quick overview of Lila’s childhood, Robinson takes us into Gilead, and Lila’s life in the present as Reverend Ames’ wife. How has this lonely, poverty-stricken, barely literate woman become an educated minister’s wife? It’s a surprising turn in Lila’s fortunes, and perhaps in another novelist’s hands we might not have believed in such a transformation. Not only does Robinson make us believe, she fills us with admiration for Lila as the agent of her own transformation.
Lila is a love story, through and through: a tale of romantic love, maternal love and a growing love of self. Robinson places Lila early in the novel in a safe place: in Gilead and married to John Ames, a kind, patient and enlightened man. He’s the old, wise benevolent father figure perhaps, the father that Lila never had, but there’s mutual respect and autonomy in Lila and Ames’ relationship. Despite Ames’ kindness and his willingness to listen, despite the homely comforts of nourishing food and clean clothes, it’s not all plain sailing, and given Lila’s difficult past one wouldn’t expect it to be. Lila’s often tempted to up and leave – the wandering life still calls her – but as she begins to reflect on her past so as to better understand it, her desire to stay with Ames grows. And she’s pregnant with his child.
Her pregnancy seems miraculous. John Ames’ first wife died in childbirth along with the infant, and Lila, having never been pregnant even though she worked for a while in a St Louis brothel, has believed herself infertile. Robinson writes, ‘Lila had thought about what it might be like having a child of her own, but it never happened. Something must have gone wrong sometime and her body just wouldn’t do it. Maybe that was what came of being a feeble child herself, or that her body didn’t wish that kind of life on anyone else. Or it could have been all the hard work.’ The novel moves through the months of Lila’s pregnancy and the beauty of the changing seasons, so marked in the North American mid-west, as Lila sits at home with her tablet and writes passages from the bible, mainly from the book of Ezekiel:
And as for thy nativity, in the day thou wast born thy navel was not cut, neither wast thou washed in water to cleanse thee; thou wast not salted at all, nor swaddled at all. No eye pitied thee, to do any of these things unto thee, to have compassion upon thee; but thou was cast out in the open field, for that thy person was abhorred, in the day that thou wast born. And when I passed by thee, and saw thee weltering in thy blood, I said unto thee, Though thou art in thy blood, live; yea, I said unto thee, Though thou art in thy blood, live.
Robinson’s use of bible passages is not overtly religious; rather these extracts serve as spiritual touchstones for Lila, reminding her of the past, allowing new interpretations of events and motives as she adjusts to the idea of motherhood. And they have a practical purpose too, for Lila is trying to improve her literacy and handwriting by this copying exercise. These extracts are beautiful simply as prose, and sit well with Robinson’s somewhat biblical style, but I imagine that poetry would have worked just as well as passages from Ezekiel. Here is a novel with bibliotherapy at its core: Lila wants to become a better reader, a wiser person. In order to do so she reads texts that help her reflect on and make sense of the past.
It’s Robinson’s determination not to make Lila a victim that I admire most about this beautiful novel. While she remembers hardship and some acts of cruelty — the time in the St Louis brothel is particularly dark – she’s also free to remember good things: Doll’s unwavering love, the friendship of the family with whom she and Doll travelled with for much of her childhood, and the simple pleasures of the itinerant life: county fairs, a good fire, a day’s pay for a day’s honest work. This sounds somewhat patronising as I write it, but Robinson makes it real, and her descriptions of the land are wonderfully uplifting. Lila herself understands and appreciates those things that have sustained her: Doll’s fierce protection; Lila’s love of the soil and growing things (peas, carrots and marigolds in a tiny plot at the brothel, roses on the grave of Ames’ first wife); the prodigious intelligence that fires her, despite her lack of education. As Robinson writes on page 4, ‘Lila would never tell anyone about that time. She knew it would sound very sad, and it wasn’t really. Doll had taken her up in her arms and wrapped her shawl around her.’
Doll’s shawl is Lila’s transition object, and Doll’s strange, whittled-down knife is her dowry, these two precious things talismanic of Doll and Lila’s past. While the shawl is always protective, the knife is both protective and dangerous, and is directly implicated in Doll’s disappearance from Lila’s life. Late in the book, just before the birth of her baby, Lila thinks about the knife: ‘That knife was the difference between her and anybody else in the world. Ugly old Doll hunched over the firelight, spitting on her bit of whetstone, sharpening and wearing the blade till the edge of it curved like a claw, readying herself for whatever fearful thing she turned over in her mind while she was working at it. And knowing that the fearful thing might take even Doll, who stole her and carried her away from whatever she could have had of place and name and kin, Lila watched her, hoping the knife would take on the witchy deadliness she was conjuring for it.’ A frightening image, but then Robinson begins the next paragraph this way: ‘Fear and comfort could be the same thing.’