The child was just there on the stoop in the dark, hugging herself against the cold, all cried out and nearly sleeping. She couldn’t holler anymore and they didn’t hear her anyway, or they might and that would make things worse. Somebody had shouted, Shut that thing up or I’ll do it! and then a woman grabbed her from under the table by her arm and pushed her out onto the stoop and shut the door…
This is how we are introduced to Lila, the protagonist of Marilynne Robinson’s fourth novel. However, if you’ve read Robinson before, this is probably not the first time you’ve met Lila because when she is older, she becomes the wife of the Reverend John Ames, the protagonist of Gilead. Lila therefore serves as a prequel.
After Lila has been cast out onto the stoop, she is rescued by a woman named Doll.
The door might have opened and a woman might have called after them, ‘Where you going with that child?’ and then, after a minute, closed the door again, as if she had done all decency required. “Well,” Doll whispered, “we’ll just have to see.”
Doll and Lila spend some time with an old woman whose house they come across. She helps Doll feed and clean Lila in exchange for chores around the place. She also gives Lila her name. They have to leave when the woman’s son returns. Throughout the rest of the novel, we discover more about the nomadic lifestyle that Doll and Lila lead and the reasons for it.
The story of Lila’s childhood is interwoven with that of her meeting the Reverend John Ames, their courtship (of sorts), and the early years of their marriage.
“Somebody like me might marry somebody like you because you got a good house and winter’s coming. Just because she’s tired of the damn loneliness. Somebody like you got no reason at all to marry somebody like me.”
He shrugged. “I was getting along with the damn loneliness well enough. I expected to continue with it the rest of my life. Then I saw you that morning. I saw your face.
Lila and John struggle with their respective loneliness throughout the novel, although Lila concedes that the marriage and her thoughts about religion are a distraction, something she fears she could get used to. John deals with his by allowing Lila the freedom she needs, to the point of promising her that if she needs to leave, he will buy the train ticket and see her to the train himself.
However, the marriage is more than simply two lonely people, one of whom struggles to trust others; it’s also an intellectual connection. Lila, newly introduced to religious thinking, asks questions that challenge Ames. In response to one of her questions, Ames writes Lila a letter:
I have struggled with this my whole life.
I still have not answered your question, I know, but thank you for asking it. I may be learning something in the attempt.
Well, he forgot he was writing to an ignorant woman. She’d have hated him for remembering. Still, she’d have to study this a little.
There’s a gap between the way Lila sees herself and the way Ames and the reader view her. This, combined with the loneliness Lila’s reflection of herself imposes on her thoughts and her behaviour, is heart breaking.
I was surprised at my reaction to Lila. I vehemently disliked Gilead; I found the sentences overlong and the religious aspect overbearing. What’s different about Lila, I think, is that it concerns a woman poorly treated as a young child, taught to survive on the fringes of society by a woman who clearly cares for her but has problems of her own. I was barely twenty-five pages in before I cared deeply for Lila and was invested in her outcome. It’s a skilled writer who can create such a character and scenario without making it cloying and sentimental. The lack of linguistic flourishes in Robinson’s prose is of great benefit here.
Lila is a superb novel and while it hasn’t made me want to revisit Gilead, I’ll definitely be reading Home and Housekeeping.
Thanks to Virago for the review copy.