‘Lila’ by Marilynne Robinson
Virago Press; $29.99
- 1 of 2
- next ›
The first two instalments of Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead series, Gilead (2004) and Home (2008), won her the Pulitzer and Orange prizes respectively. Despite the weight of expectation on this third volume, Lila lacks none of the deep modesty that has characterised Robinson’s writing.
Robinson returns to the small town of Gilead, Iowa, to focus on the wife of the dying protagonist of the first book. Lila, viewed from a distance in Gilead and Home as the young, naive companion of the elderly Reverend John Ames, is not the virtuous woman we have assumed her to be. Though the complete story of her childhood remains a mystery to her, we learn in Lila that she was apparently abandoned at a young age and taken in by the stranger Doll, part of a group of wanderers who found whatever work they could, mostly farm labour. Their time together, though abject, was not altogether unhappy but came to a calamitous end via the severe Dust Bowl storms of the 1930s.
Remembering, to Lila, is shameful; it “always felt almost guilty”. From the safety of her subdued life with Ames, she reflects on the devotion showed to her by Doll, who owed her nothing. She also doubts her own love for Ames, unsure whether it amounts to anything other than self-interest. To Ames, Lila’s appeal is that she forces him to think about why he believes as much as what he believes in. He tells Lila, “I’m going to keep you safe. And you’re going to keep me honest.”
Robinson’s Gilead novels are less a trilogy than a triptych, a way of seeing her characters from three different perspectives. Her books are works of acute moral reflection, in which the difference between good and bad people is a question only of degree.
The underlying ethos is defiantly, perhaps even unfashionably, Protestant, yet the novels are meticulously free of dogma. It is Ames’s doubt that makes him appealing to an atheist: he dares to question the ethics of his beliefs. He is unable to explain to Lila, for example, why children are made to suffer although they’ve never wronged anyone.
Lila finally realises, “When you’re scalded, touch hurts, it makes no difference if it’s kindly meant.” Having spent most of her life unable to understand why people need love, once she discovers it, she cannot live without it.
Robinson is peerless when it comes to capturing these sublime moments of truth, and in Lila she may also have caught some of the mysteries of existence itself.
Gretchen Shirm is a Sydney writer and critic. Her first book was Having Cried Wolf.