Sunday, 22 March 2015


Lila - Marilynne Robinson

"The child was just there on the stoop in the dark, hugging herself against the cold, all cried out and nearly sleeping. She couldn't holler anymore and they didn't hear her anyway, or they might and that would make things worse."

This is the third of Robinson's Gilead books, after Gilead itself and Home, and there are gaps left here that point to possible future instalments. Lila is the wife of Reverend John Ames, who was the central consciousness in Gilead.

The long letter that John Ames writes his son in Gilead contains many of his "begats". He is one in a long line. Lila, however, knows little or nothing about her forebears. Her life begins when she is taken from the 1920's equivalent of a crack den by Doll. Doll dosses down in the house herself and has really nowhere to take the child, who is sick, having been left outside in the elements. She is the only one who ever shows Lila any kindness. Indeed, when Doll is kind to Lila before taking her away, Lila hates her for it, a trait which is prevalent in children (and adults) with attachment difficulties. They share their homelessness, and that becomes a part of the bridge between them. ""Well, we got no place to go. Where we gonna go?""
The world is Depression Era America and it is a tough one, although with havens of kindness. They find safe-harbour with an old woman who helps Doll nurse Lila back to health. Robinson captures the physicality, the smells and tastes of this world.  "The old woman came back with a pail of milk. "Warm from the cow," she said. "Best thing for a child." That strong, grassy smell, raw milk in a tin cup."

All of this information is being filtered through Lila 'now', when she is a wife and mother, looking back. We shuttle back and forth between the present tense and the past, but her past is remembered largely in order.

Her life is dictated by the seasons, and the availability of work. Doll and her join a group of migrant workers led by Doane. Doll likes to keep moving but for one year she stays in the one town so that Lila can get some schooling. "There was a long time when Lila didn't know that words had letters, or that there were other names for seasons than planting and haying. Walk south ahead of the weather, walk north in time for the crops. They lived in the United States of America. She brought that home from school. Doll said, "Well, I suppose they had to call it something.""

The migrant life means that they live largely without any possessions other than the clothes they stand up in. Doll, however, has a knife which she is constantly whetting "long after it was as sharp as it ever would be", and there is a growing sense that someone from her past is hunting her. Perhaps members of Lila's family. The other item they keep is the shawl that Doll wrapped Lila in when she took her, "till it was worn soft as cobwebs." It is a repository of their shared memories.

They also live without any real 'information' about the time and place they live in, although that time is specific enough. We see the migrant workers pulled under by the undertow created by the Wall St Crash: "Lila heard about the Crash years after it happened, and she had no idea what it was even after she knew what to call it. But it did seem like they gave it the right name. 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."

Lives lived on the edge of necessity give rise to a philosophy of need, and much of civilisation seems of little use. From the disbelief at such genteel practices as helping a woman sit down "Who in the world could need help with a chair?" to language itself: "What use was there in calling a day by a certain name, or thinking of it as anything but weather? They knew what time of the year it was when the timothy bloomed, when the birds were fledging. They knew it was morning when the sun came up. What more was there to know?" Lila is radically self-sufficient, not trusting anyone else to meet her needs. The only person she has trusted was Doll, and even that could be fragile.

This seems true to Lila's childhood, the symptoms of attachment disorder but it also raises interesting philosophical issues and allows Robinson space to consider theology in a way that, while particular, has implications that are political and universal. Lila seems to move from the distant past, but it can also be viewed as an economic rather than a temporal distance, the sort of distance that applies to lives still lived all over the world and the radical disconnection we can feel from people living these lives. Lila came into Gilead in her best dress just to look around at the lives lived by others. "She never meant to talk to anybody."

How can we bridge this kind of gap? It is like winning the trust of a wild animal. You cannot dictate or demand, just wait around and show that you are not dangerous. She has a distrust that is easily awakened. Is there something to be learned from John Ames and his radical refusal to judge? He tells Lila that he feels that "thinking that other people might go to hell just feels evil to me, like a very grave sin. So I don't want to encourage anyone else to think that way. Even if you don't assume that you can know in individual cases, it's still a problem to think about people in general as if they might go to hell.You can't see the world the way you ought to if you let yourself do that. Any judgement of the kind is a great presumption. And presumption is a very grave sin. I believe this is sound theology, in its way." It seems like sound ethics to me, too, even if I would leave out the theo.

The Reverend Ames' parishioners are not quite so sure of Lila but he keeps them at arms length from her. She herself is first an object of their charity, as they put work her way at the prompting of the Reverend. She feels herself overpaid and senses the hand of Reverend Ames in this. As has been her habit in life, she thinks of moving on. "Don't want what you don't need and you'll be fine. Don't want what you can't have." She is in some ways a mirror of Jack Boughton in Home, extra sensitive to judgements and slights from others, and willing to see the bad faith in good intentions. However, she comes through her personal journey into hell, something that was beyond Jack.

This is a worthy addition to the Gilead saga, if not my favourite. That remains Home, and Jack Boughton remains my favourite of her characters. Perhaps I, like Lila, have a liking for tales that end bleakly: "She liked to hear people tell stories. The saddest ones were the best." However, there are passages of writing of great poetic power, and the hardscrabble life of Lila and Doll is bleak but there is a sensitivity to the seasons and plants and weather that imbues it with dignity and even joyfulness. The purifying wind of the countryside is absent only during time she spends in New Orleans but her escape from her life there is the sign that she can shape her own faith, if only she gets the chance. And John Ames is dedicated to giving everyone a chance.


  1. Great review, Seamus. Here's another writer I've yet to read. I'm sure I would enjoy Robinson as it sounds as if she brings a sense of humanity and compassion to these stories. I like your comments on the shawl acting as a repository for Lila and Doll's shared memories. Images like this suggest moments of beauty within the bleakness.

    I guess I should start with Gilead or Housekeeping. Have you read that one?

    Glad to hear that you are able to read (and sleep!) again. It's good to see the return of reviews here.

    1. Thanks Jacqui. It's good to be able to review again.
      I read Housekeeping (a couple of times) before the others. It's really good and definitely a good starting point. I read it back in the eighties and was disappointed with Robinson's apparent dissappearance from fiction for twenty years. She's making up for it now though.

    2. Great - I'll keep an eye out for a copy of Housekeeping. It's the sort of book that pops up in the charity shops every now and again.