I really must do what I can to tackle the large pile of to-be-reviewed books that have built up over the course of December, not least because I have read several very good ones. It’s my own fault for being so absent from blogging in the lead-up to Christmas – which I hope was good for everyone? (Mine was very nice, thank you.)
First up must be Marilynne Robinson’s Lila. I attempted Gilead many years ago now and got nowhere with it. I think I gave up after about fifty pages, it was such a contemplative and abstract sort of affair I couldn’t get any traction in it. So I didn’t have high hopes for Lila, though I was urged on by the other co-eds at Shiny who promised me it was at least about something. And indeed it is an unusual but extremely poignant love story between two people who never believed they could ever find love. It sounds awful when I describe it that way, maudlin and saccharine and full of cliche, but it isn’t these things at all, perhaps because of its thoughtful, careful bringing together of poverty, faith and homecoming against a backdrop of existential uncertainty. Or maybe it works because its main character is a force of such resistance – a woman who fights hard against love, who is only interested in the most challenging questions of theology, whose intelligence is constructed out of mistrustful peasant wisdom, who wants to want nothing for safety’s sake. As I write this and look back over the novel, what I see is a delicately held balance between light and dark, tragedy and hope; a narrative that holds its breath, gazing in perplexity at its own situation, and perhaps it is the very strangeness of such a narrative perspective that makes Lila such a striking piece of art.
Apparently the scene appears in both Gilead and Home, of the preacher, John Ames, noticing a young woman entering his church to shelter from the rain. This woman is Lila, who lives in a shack on the road out of town and offers herself at daily rates for domestic work among the families in Gilead. She is beyond poor. Her life has been a hardscrabble one, abandoned as a child but then brought up by the kind Doll, who had nothing herself but a knife that she will eventually use to commit murder. Doll and Lila joined a work party that fell apart during the years of the Depression, when they all nearly starved. Lila then moved to a whorehouse in St Louis for a while, but unable to see the point of high heels, she quickly switched jobs and became their cleaning lady instead. Forced to move on again, she took the bus to nowhere and got off on the outskirts of Gilead. Loneliness and mistrust are her closest friends, the worst is all she wants to know about, assuming it will be her lot.
Lila finds herself unaccountably drawn to the goodness of the preacher, despite her best intentions. And John Ames, despite being 67, almost twice her age, is drawn to Lila; her hardworking spirit that barely cloaks the wildness of the cornered animal. Ames has been a widower for decades, since his first wife died in childbirth, so he has his own emotional damage to contend with. But when Lila starts to grow roses over the graves of his wife and child, this unexpected tenderness sinks him. How on earth do these two people come together, you might ask? The story doesn’t even attempt to explain it. A kind of inner longing for the good things in life, so sidelined and silenced inside Lila that she never even sees it coming, makes her blurt out to the preacher that he should marry her. Ames, scarcely crediting his luck, is quick to agree. Then they both anxiously renege on the decision, fearful of the poor bargain the other is getting. But goodness and hope win out; the preacher baptises Lila in the midst of this conversation, choosing the river with its absence of any kind of pretension, and Lila, who has not been able to face the conventionality of a church, feels miraculously understood; the agreement is back on.
What is so striking in this novel is the emotional wisdom that fuels this tentative, fearful love affair. Both Ames and Lila have suffered so much in the past that they have a hard time believing that anything can come right. They have lost faith in their own abilities to attract the good and the reliable. Robinson understands that in order to love, we have to believe we are loveable, and much of the narrative is bound up with working through that Gordian knot of fear and concern. ‘But when folks are down to the one thing that keeps them alive,’ Lila thinks to herself, ‘that one thing can be meanness. It makes you feel like you’re there, like you’re doing something.’ How to break that particular habit? How to let go of the security it represents? And how to bypass the shame of all that poverty, not just material, but emotional, too? Lila brings these questions to John Ames in a curious kind of courtship, fascinated by his religious belief and the gentleness in which it is made manifest. She brings her toughest questions to him, questions about the meaning of life and the value of evil experience that he repeatedly fails to answer sufficiently. But perhaps there is truthfulness in this, and Lila can begin to trust a man who is so clearly trying to find a way to comfort her, whilst accepting that there is no easy comfort to be had.
Yet Lila is experiencing comfort – the kindness of Gilead and its inhabitants, the warmth of a real house around her, the love of the preacher. ‘The quiet of the world was terrible to her, like mockery’ the narrative tells us. She cannot believe this is anything other than a false lull in the storm of existence.
Mystery and wonder are large component parts of Robinson’s literary imagination; they balance out the unyielding, intractable parts of her characters’ lives. That a pure and poignant love can grow and start to flourish on such unlikely ground, unexplained, unaccountable but undeniably there, does restore a true sense of the miraculous to love itself. The narrative wanders, back and forth, between the strange contentment of the present moment and the various hardships and punishments of Lila’s former life; given the insistent but subtle religiosity of Robinson’s writing, it’s easy to read an allegory into this of wilderness endured before paradise can be found. The hard-nosed realism of her writing reminds us that paradise is only gained under the shadow of the deepest mistrust.
I don’t think I could face another go at Gilead, but I’m very glad indeed to have read Lila and to understand why people go on about Marilynne Robinson being such a great writer; she is indeed a great writer.