As a fan of Marilynne Robinson’s novels Gilead and Home, I was excited to pick up the third volume in this not-really-a-trilogy, Lila. Gilead told the story of the Reverend John Ames, aging Congregationalist minister in the town of Gilead, Iowa in the middle of the last century. Home, which I (unlike most readers) loved even more, told a different story that was unfolding at the same time as the events of Gilead — the return home of the prodigal son of Ames’s lifelong friend (and fellow clergyman) Robert Boughton, told from the perspective of Boughton’s daughter Glory. Now, in Lila, instead of taking the story further forward, Robinson takes us back in time. This novel is told from the perspective of Reverend Ames’s much younger wife, the mother of his child.
Lila is completely unlike the characters we’ve met so far in Gilead and Home, with their comfortably middle-class lives and their worldviews shaped by church-going, Bible-reading, and education. Lila knows nothing of her birth family, having been not so much adopted as stolen by a woman named Doll and raised amid a group of migrant farm workers. Lila’s life is bare, hardscrabble subsistence; her knowledge of the wider world is almost non-existant; her only loyalty, and that a fierce one, is to Doll. As for religion, she is utterly ignorant of it until she wanders into John Ames’s church seeking shelter one day. By that time Doll and the other companions of her childhood are long gone; Lila has survived a stint as an unsuccessful prostitute and later house-cleaner in a brothel, as well as several other hard, low-paying jobs. When she sets out on the road not knowing where she’s headed, she is entirely unprepared to find love, marriage and a family with the aging preacher in Gilead.
That last sentence sounds sentimental and romantic, which is the most misleading impression I could possibly give. Lila is the least sentimental story imaginable about love and marriage. The book is narrated in a third-person limited point of view: though Lila doesn’t tell her own story, we see and know only what she sees and knows. What she knows is that you can’t trust people; as for God, once she’s informed of His existence, she doesn’t much trust Him either, especially if He’s going to condemn people like Doll to hell just for not knowing about Him. Reverend Ames baptizes Lila, at her request, but she later goes back to the water to “unbaptize” herself. Baptism is a recurring metaphor throughout the novel, as are redemption and grace. Lila’s life is saved and changed by grace and love — but she remains her stubborn, independent self within, never sure whether she can settle into this new life or whether she might just pack up and take off tomorrow. She’s a wonderful character, and it’s a tribute to Robinson’s skill that she walks with such determination off the pages of the story.
I was initially disappointed, when I learned what Lila was about, that Robinson wasn’t taking us further into the future of the story she’d laid out in Gilead and Home. Those events are still several years in the future by the time we reach the last page of Lila. Yes, I still want to know more about the other characters — about what happens to Jack Boughton and his sister Glory, about what happens to Lila and her son after Reverend Ames dies (which we know, from the first pages of Gilead, can’t be long happening). But each of these books is a treasure in and of itself, and if Marilynne Robinson wants to keep writing about Gilead and its inhabitants till she dies I’ll gladly read every book (unless I die first). No-one else that I can think of (at least, in the English-speaking world) today is writing about faith with the kind of depth, insight and honesty that Robinson brings to the topic, and I can’t wait for another novel from her pen.