Looking back...

Looking back...

Looking back...

In her fourth novel, ‘Lila’, Marilynne Robinson tells the back story of the heroine in her Pulitzer Prize-winning book, ‘Gilead’. Michiko Kakutani reviews the book...

With her flawed but poignant new book, Lila, Marilynne Robinson has returned to the central characters in her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, Gilead (2004) — the aging minister John Ames and his much younger wife, Lila — and to the themes of alienation and separateness (and the possibility of belonging) that animated her astonishing debut novel, Housekeeping, more than 30 years ago.

Gilead, set in a small Iowa town, took the form of a letter that the dying Ames wrote to his son who was turning seven — a meditation on their family history, his religious faith and his regrets and hopes. Lila — which might well have been titled Balm in Gilead — is his wife’s story, chronicling her precarious childhood and youth, and her efforts to come to terms with that legacy of emotional damage. The novel ends with the birth of her son, whom Ames would address, years later, in Gilead.

Writing in lovely, angular prose that has the high loneliness of an old bluegrass tune, Robinson has created a balladlike story about two lost people who, after years of stoic solitariness, unexpectedly find love — not the sudden, transformative passion of romantic films and novels but a hard-won trust and tenderness that grow slowly over time.

The novel is powerful and deeply affecting, but also hobbled, at times, by the author’s curious decision to tell the story in the third person, robbing it of the emotional immediacy of Gilead and resulting in occasional passages that seem to condescend to Lila, as an uneducated, almost feral creature.

Perhaps Robinson decided to tell the story in the third person out of concern that such an unlettered girl might not have the language for communicating her state of mind, or perhaps it was difficult to find a voice for Lila that could comfortably address the big existential questions of life while remaining authentic and plain-spoken.

Lila, we quickly learn, knew abandonment and hardship growing up. She was so neglected by her family that when she was 4 or 5, a kindhearted itinerant worker named Doll snatched her up from her stoop and became her surrogate mother. (They are called ‘the cow and her calf’.) They travel with a band of other drifters led by a man named Doane, living off the land, taking the occasional farm job and a stint here and there doing gardening and household chores.

Doll’s love for Lila is sustaining, but for Lila — as for the sisters in Housekeeping, whose mother committed suicide and who feared their eccentric Aunt Sylvie would desert them too — the fear of abandonment always lurks. At one point, after ‘the Crash’, when jobs are almost impossible to come by, Doll disappears for a couple days, and Doane and the others try to leave Lila behind on the steps of a church in a no-name town.

That time, Doll does come back, but later she gets into a knife fight with a man, and after the sheriff takes Doll away, Lila is truly on her own. She finds herself working in a whorehouse in St Louis (where she develops a crush on a cad named Mack), and then for a long time she works as a cleaning lady at a hotel, putting aside money from each paycheck to go to the movies, which help sustain her emotionally.

In the hands of another author, Lila’s back story might sound sentimental or contrived, but Robinson renders her tale with the stark visual poetry of Edward Hopper or Andrew Wyeth (Christina’s World), capturing the loneliness of her transient existence. This sense of rootlessness and dislocation will stay with Lila, making her skittish and wary, a wild child, afraid of belonging to anyone or caring too much.

After Lila shows up at his church, Ames — whom Lila thinks of as ‘the old man’ — will do his best to try to tame her with kindness and patience, even though she lashes out at him, in the beginning, with defensive anger and righteous pride. “When you’re scalded, touch hurts,” Robinson writes, “it makes no difference if it’s kindly meant.”

Lila was taught by Doll to be leery of the world — to be quiet, to keep questions to herself, to never owe anything to anyone; and she not only misses Doll and their life on the road, but is also reluctant to trust in the kindness of strangers. And even as she finds herself oddly drawn to this ‘beautiful old man’, whose first wife died in childbirth many years ago, along with their infant, she is scared to leave herself vulnerable to feelings of hope and the dreams of safety and a future.

Gilead emphasised how smitten the 67-year-old Ames was with Lila — the first experience of passion in his life, and so all-consuming it almost provoked him to make a fool of himself, running after her in the street. Because those feelings are not really explored here, Ames’ instant and unwavering attachment to Lila — especially in the face of her prickly, often hurtful behaviour toward him — often seems mystifying in these pages: We are left with the incomplete suggestion that his unconditional devotion to her is the behaviour of a saintly man of faith, who believes that God ‘looks after the strays’.

In fact, it is Lila, questioning a church that might doom Doll and Doane and her other ‘heathen’ travelling companions to a hellfire they don’t deserve, who makes the case for a wider, more encompassing faith that might provide balm for all the ‘scoundrels who happened to be orphans, or whose mothers didn’t even like them.’

There are moments in this novel when Robinson unnecessarily italicises and telegraphs Lila’s emotions. Of a knife that Doll gave her, she writes: Other people had houses and towns and names and graveyards. They had church pews. All she had was that knife. And dread and loneliness and regret. That was her dowry.

Unlike the author’s ungainly 2008 novel, Home (which focused on Ames’ best friend and neighbour the Rev. Robert Boughton’s relationship with his troubled son, Jack), however, such lapses are sporadic. And by the end of the novel they’ve been swept away by Robinson’s moving depiction of Lila’s slow, halting acceptance of Ames’ love and their slow dance toward marital devotion.

By its conclusion, the novel has become a haunting parable of the pastor Ames’s understanding of the Calvinist teaching ‘that people have to suffer to really recognise grace when it comes.’

Get a round-up of the day's top stories in your inbox

Check out all newsletters

Get a round-up of the day's top stories in your inbox