Lila by Marilynne Robinson

23rd Oct 2014

Lila by Marilynne Robinson
Do you remember Lila from Marilynne Robinson’s 2005 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, Gilead?

As John Ames’s late-life second wife, she’s a background figure in the novel. There are hints of her rough upbringing and manners, as well as her unorthodox spiritual thinking.

Lila is a prequel, then; its present-day is the late 1940s, when Lila’s wanderings first bring her to the town of Gilead, Iowa and she has a surprising romance with the elderly pastor. This is the third time Marilynne Robinson has visited Gilead; Home won her the 2009 Orange Prize.

Yet the novel also reaches back to remember Lila’s semi-feral upbringing with Doll, the mother figure who kidnapped her, and the old gang, including Doane, Mellie and Arthur.

A makeshift family, Doll and Lila lived by their wits, foraging for food and keeping a trusty knife close at hand. “Doll may have been the loneliest woman in the world, and she was the loneliest child, and there they were… keeping each other warm in the rain.”

And then there is Lila’s brief sojourn in a St. Louis whorehouse, her last stop before Gilead. There she thought she might have fallen in love with Mack, Missy’s regular visitor, and entertained thoughts of stealing Missy’s baby, just like Doll stole her so many years ago.

The novel shifts effortlessly between past and present, moving from Lila’s childhood to the sweet early days of her marriage and pregnancy. Violent flashes recall the day Doll came in covered with blood, having killed a man in self-defence, while finding a runaway boy in the shack where she first sheltered in Gilead reminds Lila of her hardscrabble adolescence.

Robinson treats themes of grief, abandonment and grace in her trademark, elegant prose.The most poignant sections of the novel examine Lila’s transformation from a half-wild drifter into a preacher’s wife. She’s like an abused animal, frightened to accept human warmth; “When you’re scalded, touch hurts, it makes no difference if it’s kindly meant.”

Gradually, she begins to accept love – Pastor Ames’s, and perhaps God’s, too. “She had never been at home in all the years of her life. She wouldn’t know how to begin.” Yet Ames welcomes her in, baptising her into a new life: “Lila Dahl, I just washed you in the waters of regeneration. As far as I’m concerned, you’re a newborn babe.”

As usual, Marilynne Robinson treats themes of grief, abandonment and grace in her trademark, elegant prose. However, Lila’s story would have been more powerful had it been told in an intimate, dialect-rich first-person voice (to rival Ames’s in Gilead) instead of the third-person.

If you’re looking for a climactic story with plenty of twists, you won’t find it here. Robinson’s writing is very subtle, relying on narration and tone for its impact. Still, some may be bored. “There was the clock ticking, steady as could be, and time passing, and no sign of anything else happening at all” is sometimes an accurate description of the pace.

Some readers could also be put off by the novel’s biblical material: it’s essentially an extended analogy to the book of Hosea, in which God tells a prophet to marry a prostitute, setting up an elaborate metaphor for the Israelites’ unfaithfulness in worshipping idols.

There are also frequent snatches of the books of Ezekiel and Job – not exactly accessible examples of scripture, though they tie in well with the novel’s ideas of surviving exile and finding meaning in suffering, respectively.

You don’t have to share Robinson’s Christian outlook to appreciate themes of restoration and serenity after life’s struggles. “He looks after the strays. Especially the strays,” Ames declares. Lila might not quite match Gilead or Housekeeping, but it’s a gentle, peaceful read nonetheless.