Don’t you love those moments when you are reading and the text seems to be speaking directly to your heart? Suddenly you’re so struck by the story that it feels like there can be nothing more important in the world than reading this book right now. I had that feeling consistently throughout reading “Lila.” I’ll make a feeble attempt to try to explain here why it struck me so deeply, but of course it’s impossible to summarize. Something about it must resonate in a deep way with my life right now and I feel so enriched for having read it. I was aware of this book when it came out last October, but for some reason I was wary of reading it. Marilynne Robinson is such a well-respected figure in the literary establishment and, while I read “Gilead” and remember appreciating it, it didn’t leave a lasting impression. But, sitting here now, reeling from having just finished reading this majestic, beautifully written novel I won’t be forgetting it anytime soon.
“Lila” begins with the story of a young girl who is poor, sickly and unwanted. She’s living in a house with a group of people who she most likely isn’t related to. The year at the start of the novel is never specified, but it’s probably around 1921 because there is a reference to The Crash several years later – something which doesn’t dramatically affect the people who have always been poor. When she contemplates the depression: “It was like one of those storms you might even sleep through, and then when you wake up in the morning everything’s ruined, or gone.” The girl is taken up by a woman with a scarred face who calls herself Doll. This woman values her in a way no one has ever cared for her before. She nurtures the girl back to health when she probably would have otherwise died unnoticed. The girl is dubbed Lila which is a name chosen by an old woman who the pair live with for a short amount of time. Her identity is gradually formed from scratch because she began with nothing.
Names have a tenuous connection with the things they are attached to in this novel because the thing exists before a name was needed. It’s as if Robinson has absorbed Plato’s Cratylus dialogue and incorporated this argument about the relation between language and the things they signify into a story about a life. So, in a sense, Lila is entirely self-created making everything she learns and experiences feel fresh for the reader as well. We’re so accustomed to being called our names since childhood, it’s startling to think what it would be like to be unknown/unloved all your life. When Doll takes her on and they decide upon a name to call her: “That was the first time she ever thought about names. Turns out she was missing one all that time and hadn’t even noticed.” Lila’s wide-eyed practical approach to the world makes us question the way language impacts how we perceive everything around us.
Lila may not be aware of the way most people understand and interpret the culture and society around them, but she is not stupid. Robinson reveals throughout the novel how Lila is capable of complex feeling and tremendous depth of thought. To represent someone so under-educated yet still in possession of such intelligence is a tremendously skilful and difficult challenge for a writer. Later, when Lila is a young woman, she meets and marries a much older man, the Reverend John Ames. Through him and their conversations about life and the bible, Lila’s brilliance really shines through: “She knew a little bit about existence. That was pretty well the only thing she knew about, and she had learned the word for it from him. It was like the United States of America – they had to call it something. The evening and the morning, sleeping and waking. Hunger and loneliness and weariness and still wanting more of it. Existence. Why do I bother? He couldn’t tell her that, either. But he knows, she could see it in him.” Through their exchanges about the meaning of life and referencing Lila’s brutal experience of the world, the novel reveals startlingly clear insights into fundamental questions about existence.
The story is told in a curiously circuitous way so that references are frequently made to events in the future or people from other areas of Lila’s life. Yet, Robinson carries the reader along with such skill I never felt disorientated. It’s known from early on that Lila will marry the Reverend, but the way in which they meet and come together is revealed only gradually. What’s so radical and thrilling about the way this relationship is presented is that, even though they are married and Lila has the first real stability in her life, it’s never perceived by the characters as something that will continue with certainty. Lila has always planned to save money to take a bus to California – an amorphous dream of another life she always carries with her. In beautifully touching and heart-wrenchingly tender scenes Lila and the Reverend openly discuss the possibility of her leaving and their separation. This uncertainty about their future gives insight into the ambivalence everyone feels about their own direction in life and relationships. Despite any declares of eternal devotions, relationships can be abruptly ended by either partner. But love is a declaration of hope. As Robinson states: “Wife is a prayer.” This creates suspense in the narrative as well as showing a deeper understanding of the complex psychology of the characters.
Lila’s journey in this novel is one in which she slowly formulates a certainty about her identity and right to be despite her impoverished and neglected origins. Robinson sums up brilliantly the way in which her existence has been like an imitation of a life: “Her name had the likeness of a name. She had the likeness of a woman, with hands but no face at all, since she never let herself see it. She had the likeness of a life, because she was all alone in it.” There is a frequent sense throughout that Lila possesses a deep loneliness because of the solitary necessity of relying only on herself and the hardened nature she’s acquired from growing up in desperate circumstances. It’s a constant presence that Lila feels: “She had told herself more than once not to call it loneliness, since it wasn’t any different from one year to the next, it was just how her body felt, like hungry or tired, except it was always there, always the same.” This complicated emotional state has been a part of her existence for so long it’s become something she even feels in her body.
I was greatly moved by the beautifully delicate way Robinson goes about evoking Lila’s deep sense of aloneness and how it naturally makes her want to stop herself from fully trusting or revealing herself to others. It’s resignedly observed “That’s one good thing about the way life is, that no one can know you if you don’t let them.” Thus Lila is very careful about committing herself to anyone or anything because she understands how transitory and untrustworthy life can be. She’s defensive even when she’s offered kindness because “That was loneliness. When you’re scalded, touch hurts, it makes no difference if it’s kindly meant.” It’s startling to me how complexly Robinson crafts her character delineating Lila’s thoughts, feelings and motivations with short poignant phrases that perfectly capture a state of being.
Lila’s journey is very specific, but Marilynne Robinson has an extraordinary capacity for making her story feel universal. I would normally be hesitant about a novel which contains so much dialogue with religious text, but there is nothing prescriptive or preaching in this novel. The character of Doll is adamantly against religion. Yet, it’s the way in which she and Lila’s husband, the Reverend, both exhibit a beautifully patient sense of kindness for no other reason than out of human decency which is truly inspiring. Gradually Lila feels inspired to show kindness herself. It’s what lifts what would otherwise be a terribly bleak novel out of the depths. As I mentioned before, I’ve read “Gilead” which is an epistolary novel from the Reverend Ames’ perspective so I was already somewhat familiar with his character, but I haven’t read Robinson’s follow-up novel “Home” which is about Reverend Robert Boughton (a close friend of Reverend Ames). I don’t feel it’s necessary to read either of these before reading “Lila” but there are references to Boughton which I’m sure would have more meaning if I had. Like Rachel Joyce’s extraordinary “The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy” which is a companion novel to her earlier book, “Lila” is powerful enough to stand on its own. It’s is a deeply profound novel full of uncompromising truth and human spirit which I’m sure I will return to again and again.