American Literature, Book review, Fiction, Gilead, Grapes of Wrath, Lila, literary writing, Literature, Man Booker Prize, Marilynne Robinson, National Book Award, Novels, Religious Literature, The Pulitzer Prize, Theology
Asymmetrical loneliness and revelation grip the two principal characters in Marilynne Robinson’s classic novel “Lila”. Lila is a dispossessed child mercifully stolen by an itinerant young woman, Doll, who despite the oppression of the Depression, like Rose of Sharon, wills Lila to live. Reverend Ames, an elderly minister in the small town of Gilead, Iowa, has an inherited Calvinist teaching that overrides his loss of a wife and child. Lila finds her way into Reverend Ames’ church and life after Doll likely dies in a knife fight, possibly with Lila’s father, over the possessory interest in his abandoned property right. Lila’s sole possessions are Doll’s knife and a stolen bible from the Church.
Barely literate, Lila begins her readings with Ezekiel, despite the Reverend’s warning that it is sad and a difficult place to start.
“All right. She was mainly interested in reading that the people were a desolation and a reproach. She knew what those words meant without asking. In the sight of all that pass by. She hated those people, the ones that look at you as if they want to say, Why don’t you get your raggedy self out of my sight. Ain’t one thing going right for you. Existence don’t want you. Doll couldn’t hide her poor face anymore, the way she did when they were all together and Doanne did their talking for them. People would try to figure out that mark. A wound, maybe a scar? It was an astonishment to them. They would stare at it before they realized what they were doing, and Doll would just stand there waiting till they were done, till they looked past her and spoke past her. And then she would try to sell them what little she had in the way of strength. Or they could just swap something for it, if that was easier. In those days it seemed to Lila that they were nothing at all, the two of them, but here they were, right here in the Bible. Don’t matter if it’s sad. At least Ezekiel knows what certain things feel like. That voice above the firmament. He knows the sound of it. There is no speech nor language. But it was asking a hard question all the same, something to do with the trouble it was for them to hold up their heads, and where the strength came from that made them do it no matter what.”
“What could the old man say about all those people born with more courage than they could find a way to spend, and then there was nothing to do with it but just get by?”
The Reverend is not judgmental. He sees life in Lila, no more or less pure than Mary. He allows Lila her own time to explain, or not, as she is inclined to do, having been in the wilderness for so long. His dogmatism is in the question; the failure to know or to explain. He confesses that he must seem like a fool to Lila, as he has no answers to many of her questions. He prays often and she respects it, but her revelation is through mere existence. The teachings are reaffirmation for her.
“I don’t understand theology. I don’t think I like it. Lots of folks live and die and never worry themselves about it.”
“She thought. An unborn child lives the life of a woman it might never know, hearing her laugh or cry, feeling the scare that makes her catch her breadth, tighten her belly. For months its whole life would be all dreams and no waking. The steps in the road, the thought of the knife, then the dread sinks away for a while, and how is a child to know why?…. Well child, Lila thought, I will see you weltering in your blood. And mine. Lonely, frightened, my own child. If the wildness doesn’t carry us both away. And if it does.”
“Lila” is the last book of the author’s Gilead trilogy. Gilead won the Pulitzer Prize and Home was a National Book Award finalist as was Lila (it lost to Phil Klay’s Redeployment, which I previously reviewed and enjoyed, but to the extent literature can be compared, it is not equal to Lila). I would be very surprised if this book does not make the 2015 Booker Short List. As literature it is far superior to The Moor’s Account which I recently reviewed and enjoyed. I have not read the other Long Listed finalists to make a comparison.
I regret not reading the other two books in the trilogy, but Lila stands on its own. I will read the others as I believe this trilogy is timeless literature. To read this is like entering a house of worship. It is spiritual for the agnostic. An atheist might be dissatisfied, but not with the prose.
It is a must read. The author is an American treasure.