Grace surfaces as balm in Gilead
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’’.