Grace sur­faces as balm in Gilead

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Felic­ity Plun­kett

Lila By Mar­i­lynne Robin­son Vi­rago, 272pp, $29.99

AS a small child, Lila is ne­glected, shut out­side at night, ‘‘hug­ging her­self against the cold, all cried out’’. Cov­ered with in­sect bites and bleed­ing where she has a habit of bit­ing her own hand, she is car­ried off by a drifter, Doll, in a mo­ment that feels as though ‘‘she had been born a sec­ond time’’.

For a child who knows noth­ing of re­li­gion but much about dam­age, the bathing that fol­lows is sacra­men­tal and re­demp­tive. Poor, itin­er­ant and scarred, Doll comes to Lila like ‘‘an an­gel in the wilder­ness’’, awak­en­ing her to kind­ness. Lila is a novel about trauma and its re­pair through the wild, an­gelic en­er­gies of grace.

Lila is the third of Mar­i­lynne Robin­son’s Gilead nov­els, set in an imag­ined Iowa town. Each of­fers a dif­fer­ent per­spec­tive on the lives of key char­ac­ters, like a set of maps — ge­o­logic, to­po­graphic, so­lar — de­scrib­ing the same ter­rain. Read­ers of Pulitzer prize-win­ning Gilead (2004) — pub­lished 24 years after Robin­son’s de­but, House­keep­ing — know some­thing of Lila’s story through the nar­ra­tive her hus­band, the el­derly Rev­erend John Ames, cre­ates for their six-yearold son to read when he is older.

Home (2008) casts a side­long glance at John and Lila, fo­cus­ing in­stead on John’s dy­ing friend the Rev­erend Robert Boughton. His daugh­ter Glory, hu­mil­i­ated by the man she loves, has re­turned home re­luc­tant and in­jured. Her brother John Ames (Jack) Boughton re­turns too, after decades of es­trange­ment, curled and stiff­ened by al­co­hol, se­crets and shame. The fam­ily suf­fers ‘‘an in­can­des­cence of un­ease about him when­ever he walked out the door’’, for his un­knowa­bil­ity and self-de­struc­tive­ness.

In Lila, both John and Lila fear sim­i­lar de­par­tures. Lila imag­ines John walk­ing away: ‘‘I’ll start telling my­self you’re gone for good, and why wouldn’t you be.’’ Lila is the mirac­u­lous beloved who ar­rives when John ‘‘thought I had learned not to set my heart on any­thing’’ and her tem­po­rary dis­ap­pear­ance at one stage ter­ri­fies him. ‘‘When you’re scalded,’’ John ob­serves of him­self as much as Lila, ‘‘touch hurts.’’

For Lila, the tem­plate for love is her res­cue by Doll, who wraps her in a soft shawl and car­ries her into their va­grant life. With John, she feels ‘‘trust rise up in her like that old sweet sur­prise of be­ing car­ried off in strong arms, wrapped in a gen­tle­ness worn all soft and per­fect’’. She recog­nises ‘‘the way it felt to walk along be­side him’’.

John in­tu­its Lila’s suf­fer­ing and is kind ‘‘in what­ever way he could think of’’. His words about her un­spo­ken his­tory are bene­dic­tory: ‘‘What­ever it is, or was, that you didn’t tell me, I re­gret it very much.’’ His small cour­te­sies be­gin an ex­change of kind­nesses and although at first Lila pref­aces hers with ‘‘I owe you a kind­ness’’, they soon dis­pense with any kind of ledger. When John tells Lila ‘‘I’ve had … enough [suf­fer­ing] to know that this is grace’’, he is think­ing of the deaths many years ago of his young wife and their baby, and it is Lila who tends their graves. When John writes to her, Lila knows be­fore read­ing the let­ter that ‘‘what­ever he said, it would be kind’’. Each of them thaws from lonely en­clo­sure into a good ‘‘you had to learn how to miss, and then you’d never stop miss­ing it’’.

Yet amid this kind­ness Lila learns of the damn­ing of ‘‘hea­then’’. Robin­son’s own Chris­tian­ity ap­pears idio­syn­cratic. She has writ­ten a book on Calvin, and notes his in­flu­ence on and spirit in po­ets such as Walt Whit­man and Emily Dick­in­son, sug­gest­ing that for him ‘‘the aes­thetic is the sig­na­ture of the divine’’. The ques­tion of suf­fer­ing or, as Lila puts it, ‘‘why things hap­pen the way they do’’ is me­di­ated through a dis­cus­sion of scrip­ture. Of his re­sponses to Lila’s the­o­log­i­cal and philo­soph­i­cal ques­tions, John ex­claims: ‘‘Lis­ten to me! Ev­ery word I say is just pure preacher!’’

As John’s and Lila’s con­ver­sa­tion deep­ens the an­gu­lar beauty of the novel’s im­agery re­veals a pat­tern of il­lu­mi­na­tions — from fleet­ing mo­ments of grace to the bap­tismal and bene­dic­tory. Lila’s faith in trust and kind­ness is trans­lated through the nat­u­ral world beyond the knowl­edge of Chris­tian­ity she ob­tains.

As Lila’s story un­folds, time rolls back and forth, col­lect­ing mem­o­ries like the river her wan­der­ings have traced, with its ‘‘chink and plosh of all the small life’’. Lila’s dark­est mem­ory is a place, St Louis, where she worked in a brothel whose in­hab­i­tants ‘‘knew too much about the worst that could pos­si­bly hap­pen’’. The novel’s time is mem­ory’s time, cropped and stretched in places, tan­gled and wo­ven in oth­ers. The past is im­bued with the present as much as the present may be haunted.

Lila is un­con­cerned with spir­i­tual re­demp­tion in a con­ven­tional sense. Robin­son re­places any sim­ple idea of con­ver­sion with a chart­ing of the mu­tual recog­ni­tion and en­twined learn­ing of her pro­tag­o­nists, and the grace of their love. The dark­est of the three Gilead nov­els, its sub­lime po­etry is more blaz­ing for its back­drop. There are traces of Faulkner and Alice Munro in Robin­son’s work, but its power is akin to the vis­ceral po­etry Dick­in­son de­scribes when she writes, ‘‘if I feel phys­i­cally as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is po­etry’’.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.