‘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. She lived in the likeness of a house, with walls and a roof and a door that kept nothing in and nothing out’.
Lila by Marilynne Robinson, Pg.68
Although a quiet and unassuming read, Marilynne Robinson’s final novel in the Gilead trilogy, Lila, is a powerful and moving account of the Reverend John Ames’ young wife – a woman we hardly know anything about, though she appears in the first two novels, Gilead and Home. What I like so much about Robinson’s trilogy is how they focus in on the everyday; the everyday momentum of life and the everyday thoughts and feelings of ordinary people. I am so used to trilogies or series of books being packed full of action or fantasy (for example, Maddaddam, The Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones or Harry Potter) that to have a a trilogy like this, which is so down to earth, is refreshing in its originality.
Lila tells the humble story of a woman who has been an outlaw and outcast of society for most of her life. Lila grows up never knowing who her true family is. All she knows is that a woman named Doll took care of her and helped her stay alive through the hardships of homelessness and poverty. She owes her life to this woman and is thankful to her despite the less than satisfactory situations she has found herself in over the years. Although I won’t go into the details, it is these rough situations that have led Lila to the outskirts of the fictional town of Gilead. Despite its familiarity to the reader, Gilead is at first a lonely and alienating place for Lila. She sets up home in a small, abandoned shack just on the edge of town and encounters suspicious looks from the people that inhabit this place.
‘Lila was halfway to Gilead by now. The sky was grey and the wind was acting like it owned the place, tossing the trees, and the trees all moaning’.
Lila by Marilynne Robinson, Pg.156
Despite the feeling of safety and familiarity of Gilead, which comes across in the first two novels, Lila has a completely different relationship to the town, similar to how Jack Boughton – the prodigal, yet troubled, son in Home – feels when he finally returns after a twenty year absence. She never quite feels like she belongs, even when she is settled in John Ames’ home as his wife or when she is carrying his child.
‘Doll always said, Just be quiet. Whatever it is, just wait for it to be over. Everything ends sometime. Lila thought, When you know it will end anyway, you can want to be done with it. But if you’re carrying a child, you’d best have a roof over your head’.
Lila by Marilynne Robinson, Pg.19-20
Lila seems to be in a perpetual state of flight, ready to drop everything if need be. Yet, at the same time, she is terrified of losing what she cannot believe she has stumbled across – a loving husband and the prospect of a baby. She has found herself a home where she is safe and where she can raise a family, but she cannot let go of the niggling doubt that eats away at her.
Written in third-person, the narrative jumps back and forth, from Lila’s uneasy past to the present. Her history is slowly and satisfactorily revealed to us after only reading of her presence in the first two books, and it is with remarkable skill that Robinson is able to create a character who is so innately intelligent yet lacks the proper education and language to express herself. Robinson often evokes the use of questions when exploring the depth of Lila’s emotions and what I found most interesting was Lila’s questioning of difficult and irreconcilable aspects of theology in relation to everyday life.
‘Boughton mentioned a Last Judgement. Souls just out of their graves having to answer for lives most of them never understood in the first place. Such hard lives’.
Lila by Marilynne Robinson, Pg.101
Lila is frightened and confused by some aspects of religion that John Ames, nor Robert Boughton, can answer in agreeable terms. She has an affinity to the wanderers and drifters of this world. The people who are only trying to get by, only trying to exist, without any thought of having to justify their actions when the time for ‘judgement’ comes. Lila has known people who have done terrible things in order to survive; she, herself, is not immune to the sufferings of daily life. Yet, she also recognises great kindness and patience in John Ames which she finds comfort in. She is willing to open her mind to the benefits of religion, though at the same time she recognises its limitations in this world.
‘Sorrow is very real, and loss feels very final to us. Life on earth is difficult and grave, and marvellous. Our experience is fragmentary. Its parts don’t add up’.
Lila by Marilynne Robinson, Pg.223
Lila by Marilynne Robinson is a beautiful extension to her Gilead novels. As this Guardian article ponders: ‘Perhaps Gilead emerges as the most intellectual of the three books, Home the most political, Lila the most emotional. Together they are masterclasses in the use of perspective, overlapping, often narrating the same events, but from sharply divergent standpoints’. Lila, although traversing and touching on familiar territory, goes beyond what we already knew from the first two novels and lifts the veil over this complicated and fascinating woman whilst bringing to a close this wonderful masterpiece.