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"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
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
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.