Marilynne Robinson, Lila (Virago 2014)
This is the third book in Marilynne Robinson’s superb Gilead trilogy. I wouldn’t be sorry to learn that the series will continue.
The first book, Gilead, is narrated by John Ames, an ageing Congregationalist pastor in the small US town that the book is named after, trying to explain his life of faith to his alienated son. A main strand of that book is Ames’s intense relationship with the Reverend Boughton, another pastor in Gilead. They both are devoted to their God, to their calling as clergymen, to each other, and to a rigorous thinking through of their Calvinist faith. I don’t know that I’ve ever read theological discussion that was so warmly human.
The second book, Home (which I’ve blogged about here and here), covers ground already traversed in the first, but from a different points of view: it’s mainly the story of Boughton’s disgraced son Jack, coming home with a new wife. Lila is named for Ames’s second wife, and tells the story of her radically deprived childhood and life on the margins leading up to the moment when she improbably but convincingly finds a home with the one she thinks of as ‘this good old man’.
I regret reading this so long after its predecessors. We only get what Lila overhears of Ames and Boughton’s conversations, and Boughton’s adult children have tiny, non-speaking roles, so there’s a sense of so much happening outside the scope of the narrative , some of which I’m fairly sure was explicit in Gilead. My impression is that the action of Home takes place after the action of this book, but I wouldn’t swear to it. And I don’t suppose it really matters. Lila’s story is compelling in its own right.
She was saved from probable death from neglect as a small child by a vagrant woman named only Doll. She grew up under Doll’s fiercely protective care in Depression USA, joining a group of itinerant workers, going to school enough to learn to read, always moving on when Doll feared they were about to be found by Lila’s vengeful kinfolk or other enemies. Doll’s life ends in violence – after she stabs to death a man who may be Lila’s biological father.
Lila manages to survive a time working in a brothel and the hardships of life on the road until almost by accident she walks into the church in Gilead. Before that, her minimal literacy has led her to the Bible, and phrases from Ezekiel about a baby weltering in its blood somehow struck a deep chord in her imagination.
Interspersed with this story, the story of Lila growing up, coming to Gilead and proposing marriage to Ames, there is the story of her emotional journey towards deciding to stay with him. Virtuous characters are notoriously difficult to create, and once created they are difficult to make interesting. From one point of view, Lila exists as a device to allow us to see Ames as interesting: her every interaction with him is informed by the violence and deprivation that have formed her, as well as her fierce love and loyalty to Doll.
We no longer hear the intricate theological discussions of Ames and Boughton. Instead, Ames is challenged to examine the basic nature of his faith. It’s a good bit of the power of the book that he rises to the challenge with humility, affection, even delight. It’s evangelical Christianity, but not as we have come to know it in the age of Trump.