Lila: A Novel by Marilynne Robinson (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 272 pages)
Balsam trees growing in the Gilead highlands above the Jordan River once yielded the balm of Gilead, a healing resin used, in the words of an old spiritual, “to make the wounded whole.” The Gilead of Marilynne Robinson’s novels is a fictional Iowa town described as “a dogged little outpost.” It’s a humble setting for the playing out of great themes – redemption, faith, innocent suffering, and love – in a manner that resonates with modern readers. Writing in The New Yorker, Mark O’Connell notes that, “She makes an atheist reader like myself capable of identifying with the sense of a fallen world that is filled with pain and sadness but also suffused with divine grace.”
Robinson’s Lila, appearing this autumn, is her third novel in a row to share the Gilead address. (Her debut novel, Housekeeping, has a different location and sensibility.) The first of the three books, Gilead (2004), won the author a loyal readership and a Pulitzer Prize. Its central character, John Ames, is an elderly preacher who has married a younger woman, Lila; the book is a letter he writes to their son, whom he knows he will not live to see grow up. The letter weaves together his recollections with pieces of fatherly advice (“This is an interesting planet. It deserves all the attention you can give it”). He reflects on his ancestry or “begats,” including a fiercely abolitionist grandfather who fought with John Brown. (In a subplot, uneasy race relationships continue to haunt the 1950s Gilead that Ames inhabits.) The book’s dynamic heart is John Ames himself – wry, as honest as he is able to be, and open to joy. In his words, “Grace has a grand laughter in it.”
Home, published in 2008, tells the same story from the perspective of Glory, a Gilead native who has returned to take care of her dying father. Told by an omniscient narrator, Home lacks Gilead’s warm resonance – like other readers, I found myself missing the presence of John Ames.
Now Lila provides the backstory to Gilead and Home, tracing the orphaned Lila’s childhood with a ragged community of vagrants who are eventually separated by the Depression. Lila struggles on alone until the day she wanders into Gilead. Her early history is told in fragments, alternating with the story of her arrival in town, John Ames’ shy courtship, and the growth of her love to him. Their relationship is complicated by her wariness of a repose she knows will be temporary, given his age. The novel’s best passages are the conversations of this odd couple as they negotiate their engagement, start a marriage, and wait for their child. He is bemused and pleased by her efforts to become a preacher’s wife by copying grim passages from the Old Testament to teach herself to read. (“You know,” he remarks to her, “I wouldn’t mind if you were reading Matthew, along with Ezekiel. Just a suggestion.”)
Lila repeatedly replays her painful childhood and youth, both in her thoughts and in their conversations. Her sense of the “bitterness and fear” of existence runs up against John Ames’s faith in redemption. Those who loved Gilead will appreciate hearing the story from the viewpoint of a woman suspicious of cheap grace. But readers new to Robinson may be best off starting with the earlier book.
Lila ends with its main character seeing a vision in which all the broken men and women she has known arrive in heaven to be welcomed and comforted. She resolves to share this vision with her husband: the promise of the true balm in Gilead.