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Where questions end

28 November 2014

Martin Wroe reads a tale that talks about the grace of God

Marilynne Robinson
Virago £16.99
Church Times Bookshop £15.30 (Use code CT292 )

"I DON'T understand theology. I don't think I like it. Lots of folk live and die and never worry themselves about it."

A story in which the main character, Lila Dahl, can speak a truth like that is bound to be deeply theological. When it comes from the pen of Marilynne Robinson, it is also likely to be a powerful tale, beautifully told.

The third of her novels set in the fictional Iowan town of Gilead, Lila is surely as great a work of imagination as Gilead (2005), which won the Pulitzer Prize; and Home (2008), which won the Orange Prize. In Gilead we met the town's septuagenarian Congregational minister, the Revd John Ames, writing to his seven-year-old son so that he will know who his father was, once he is gone.

Ames also has a lifelong conversation with another minister, Robert Boughton. They relax by talking about Calvinism. Boughton's grown-up children, Gloria and Jack, provide the narrative in Home.

Now we get to hear about Lila, the woman Ames has married so late in life. Her unexpected and remarkable story opens when she is an abandoned child, rescued - or is it stolen? - by Doll, a scar-faced vagabond, prepared to use the knife she carries in her garter. One day, she does. The story closes with the child becoming a mother herself, married to Ames, reflecting on the road that brought her to him.

Lila and Doll end up among a group of wandering farm workers, working the fields by the sweat of their brows. The Great Depression causes this finely balanced seasonal existence to collapse into the grinding poverty of dustbowl America: relationships fray; the community splits; the centre cannot hold. Lila's is the bleakest of lives, ending up, via the whorehouse, solitary and destitute in nowheresville, sheltering from the weather of her desperate days in the doorway of Ames's church.

The novel is a love story - not only of the vagrant and the minister, but of Lila for the community that saved her, the one that never asked any of the big questions that Ames and Boughton love to ponder.

This novel is deceptive in its simplicity: not much happens at all, while everything happens. There are no chapters, which suits the way in which the story meditates on life's mystery - more exactly on a word that Lila has never thought of, and has no definition for: "existence". While nothing much is happening, big questions are raised. Are we products only of our upbringing? Does prayer do anything? Can a person change? What are we so ashamed about? Can we forgive ourselves? Will there be marriage in heaven?

Ames's gentleness, compassion, and wisdom is a kind of saintliness - and probably a bit annoying at times. But, for all her "ignorance", Lila, too, has transcendent qualities - her honesty with herself, her courage in not taking flight, her faithfulness to the memory of Doll.

Ames is the best kind of Calvinist, because he thinks like a poet, not a mathematician; and because, for all his biblical literacy, he is comfortable in his own agnosticism. Seeing through and beyond two millennia of eccentric theological architecture, Ames trusts in something simpler: "I believe in the grace of God . . . where all the questions end." And Lila can trust in Ames. Sometimes, our faith in each other is our faith in God.

The Revd Martin Wroe is a freelance writer and Associate Vicar of St Luke's, West Holloway, London.


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