NOVELS about the domestic life of Congregationalist ministers in small Midwestern towns do not usually make it to international bestseller status, but Marilynne Robinson’s extraordinary trilogy about her imagined town of Gilead has rapidly become a benchmark of morally serious modern fiction. It has established her as unquestionably one of the great English-language novelists of our time.
Lila is the third of this trilogy, and for those who have read the first two, it fills out what has been one of the most enigmatic aspects of the earlier stories. Lila is the young wife of the elderly minister, John Ames, who is the narrator of the first of the trilogy, in a narrative addressed to their small son.
In both this first book, Gilead (Features, 22 June 2012; Reading groups, 2 November 2006), and its sequel, Home, dealing with the family of Ames’s clerical colleague and friend, Robert Boughton, we have encountered Lila as a quizzical voice on the edges of conversations, almost on the edge of our vision: an uneducated woman, with an unexplained past, who has simply turned up in Gilead, and, to everyone’s amazement, ended up marrying the ageing and long-widowed pastor.
Her deep and instinctive compassion, interwoven with a persistent theological scepticism, is, for Ames, a necessary corrective to his own taste for speculation, and a counterpoint to his own fundamental acceptance of God’s ways — not a bland faith, but one that is unshaken by even the trauma of his own loss and struggle.
Lila has kept Ames honest, and helped him to hear what his generous and positive faith can sound like to someone who comes from outside his frame of reference; in his generosity, he gives thanks for this loving abrasiveness, learning to see his theological passions with a more gentle irony.
But most readers of the trilogy will have wondered where Lila comes from; what has made her the quietly but devastatingly critical presence she is. The third novel tells her story, the story of a neglected child taken from her violent and dysfunctional home by the vagrant Doll, who gives her the only emotional anchorage she has ever really had.
The two of them wander through the small towns of rural America, in company with other drifters, casual workers, and misfits, struggling to find work and food, living precariously. When Doll is arrested after a violent episode with a man who may be Lila’s father, Lila is left to fend for herself. She works briefly in a brothel, then takes to the road again, at last finding refuge in Gilead.
Her gradually developing relationship with Ames is beautifully chronicled: her fear of “capture” and of compromise, her innate mistrust of the kind but comfortable acceptance of Gilead’s Christian folk, her attempts to escape back to the wildness where she feels more at home, her costly “Yes” to Ames and to his world — and, eventually, to the mothering of his son.
She is an avid reader of the Bible that she picks up in Gilead’s church, and Robinson depicts the ways in which the wildness and strangeness of the language of scripture speak to her: she recognises that, in Luther’s words, “This is about you.”
Cautiously, she agrees to accept baptism. But when she hears Ames and Boughton placidly discussing the eternal fate of unbelievers, she has a moment of deep revolt, and — in a scene of powerful symbolism — tries to wash off her baptismal identity, because she sees it as separating her from the suffering and lost souls who have previously been her only friends and helpers — Doll, above all.
In an echo of figures such as Simone Weil, or St Silouan of Mount Athos, she cannot imagine entering into life as long as there are those who live in the shadow of death. If baptism means separation like this, so much the worse for baptism. And yet this is not the last word; her final vision, as she broods over her baby, whose life has briefly hung in the balance over a few snowbound winter days, is of a God who can never rest in the absence of any of the souls whom he has made.
If Lila cannot imagine life without those who have loved her into life, she equally cannot imagine a God who would want to live without the whole company of those he loves.
The novel presents a cogent, moving picture of grace and salvation, and reinforces the widespread view that Robinson makes Christianity something that an intelligent and sensitive adult need not be ashamed to think and feel with — even to inhabit with her own solidity of commitment.
Some critics, recognising the beauty of her writing and the depth and insight of her depiction of characters, have also expressed reservations about the universalism implied in the book: is this narrative clear enough about judgement as well as mercy?
Readers will decide; but, at the very least, this is a compelling story of transforming grace for one lost soul. And it is by no means clear that a novel needs to be a comprehensive creed. It is enough, perhaps, for it to be a compelling new world for the reader.
Lord Williams of Oystermouth is Master of Magdalene College, Cambridge, and a former Archbishop of Canterbury.
Lila by Marilynne Robinson is published by Virago at £8.99 (CT Bookshop £8.10); 978-1-844-08882-9 (Books, 28 November 2014; Features, 2 January 2015).
LILA — SOME QUESTIONS
Lila is dedicated “To Iowa”: what part did the landscapes and weather of the American Midwest play in your reading of the novel?
What is the significance of the Bible in the book?
What are your thoughts on Lila and John Ames’s relationship?
What does Lila have to tell us about human dignity and shame?
How compelling did you find Lila as a protagonist?
“The strangeness of it”: what did you think was the most surprising aspect of Lila?
How far does the novel bear out Lila’s thought that “Folks are their bodies”?
To what extent is Lila a novel about different kinds of survival?
Lila mentions the “wildness” of the Bible: do we try too hard to tame it, and make it morally and symbolically tidy?
The book raises the issue of God’s inability to let go of those whom he has made, with the same sort of love as Lila shows for the inadequates and lost souls who have loved her as best they can. Does this work? Do we need to find things to say about the possibility of souls’ choosing to be lost and stay lost?
IN OUR next reading-groups page, on 6 May, we will print extra information about the next book. This is Blessing by Andrew Davison. It is published by Canterbury Press at £12.99 (CT Bookshop £11.70); 978-1-848-25642-2.
What does it mean to bless someone? What does it mean to be blessed? Part of the “Faith Going Deeper” series, Andrew Davison’s book reflects on the ways in which Christian life has been shaped, and can be shaped, by blessing. The book’s first part explores the forms that blessing has taken in Judaeo-Christian tradition and theology; its second part outlines its significance for Christians today in practical and pastoral terms. In his review (Books, 19 February), David Stancliffe described Blessing as “a wise and helpful book . . . everyone should read it.”
The Revd Dr Andrew Davison is the author of many works of Christian theology, including For the Parish (with Alison Millbank, 2010), Why Sacraments? (2013), and Care for the Dying (with Dr Sioned Evans, 2014). He is a frequent contributor to Church Times and the Times Literary Supplement. He was ordained following a doctorate in biochemistry at Oxford, and later completed a Ph.D. in philosophical theology at Cambridge, where he is now the Starbridge Lecturer in the Divinity Faculty.
Books for the next two months:
June: The Society of Timid Souls by Polly Morland
July: The Rings of Saturn by W. G. Sebald