The exploration of meaning

Marilynne Robinson, whose previous novels include Housekeeping (1980), Gilead (2004), which won the Pulitzer Prize, and Home (2008), is a master of creating a character and giving that character a unique narrative voice.

This exploration of the meaning of things runs through all of Robinson’s fiction (she is perhaps our most theological of literary artists), yet she is less interested in answers than in the exploration of them.

In Lila (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014, $26, 272 pages), the titular character is taken from an abusive home as a young child, by a woman who calls herself Doll. Robinson’s language captures the child’s age and environment: “Her arms were all over scratches.” “The people inside fought themselves quiet.”

Robinson never offers dates, but it’s probably around 1920. Doll raises Lila with the help of another woman. Then, when Lila is a teen or older, they join a group moving from place to place, looking for work and food. She captures the feel and detail of the 1930s Depression without giving dates or other historical information.

The narrative moves back and forth, always from Lila’s perspective, though written in third person, between her experience with this group, led by the mercurial Doane, and her coming to the town of Gilead, Iowa, the setting for Robinson’s two previous novels.

She arrives after having been abandoned by the group and Doll has been arrested for murder. Soon she meets Reverend John Ames, who is the narrative voice of Gilead.

When they first meet, she says, “I just been wondering lately why things happen the way they do.” This sparks a connection. He says, “I’ve been wondering about that more or less my whole life.”

This exploration of the meaning of things runs through all of Robinson’s fiction (she is perhaps our most theological of literary artists), yet she is less interested in answers than in the exploration of them. Ames says that “life is a very deep mystery, and that finally the grace of God is all that can resolve it. And the grace of God is also a very deep mystery.”

He has been a minister for many years and is well respected in town. He lost his wife and newborn son 40 years earlier and has remained unmarried. Yet this young woman throws him for a loop.

She is not that impressed by his religious talk. For her, “the best thing about church was that when she sat in the last pew there was no one looking at her.”

She carries with her a lifetime of living hand-to-mouth, often outside. She connects with nature, and even after she is living with Ames, she gets up in the morning and walks to the river to bathe.

She also carries with her the presence of Doll and often thinks back to the time Doll rescued her. She wants “to feel trust rise up in her like that sweet old surprise of being carried off in strong arms, wrapped in a gentleness worn all soft and perfect.”

One day, when Ames tells Lila he should repay her for taking roses to the grave of his wife and child, she hears herself say, “You ought to marry me.”

Given her hard life, she has developed a hard exterior and has a difficult time trusting anyone, so her statement surprises even her. And then he agrees.

One of the strong images in the novel is water. Lila likes to spend time at the river, and soon after they agree to marry, she asks Ames to baptize her.

Afterward, they talk. She captures the turmoil of her life when she says to him, “I don’t trust nobody. I can’t stay nowhere. I can’t get a minute of rest.”

Throughout the book, Lila struggles with believing she can be accepted for who she is. Despite Ames’ acceptance and love for her, she keeps longing for Doll. “She lived for Doll to see.”

A major theme of the novel is how sorrow and joy, loneliness and connection come together, and people move between them, as in a dance.

Given her long experience of loneliness, Lila has trouble accepting love. “When you’re scalded, touch hurts, it makes no difference if it’s kindly meant.” Yet after her baptism, Ames puts his hand on her hair. “That was what made her cry. Just the touch of his hand.”

Everyone experiences loneliness. Even the wind, “clapping shut and prying open everything that was meant to keep it out, bothering where it could, tired of its huge loneliness.”

In Lila we get to know a person who has grown up in poverty. She is made strong through her survival skills yet is wounded by her experiences of rejection, and is looking for some connection, even while hesitating to grasp it when it comes.

In this novel we come to know a unique character who draws out of us our own feelings of rejection and our longings for connection. Lila is yet another masterpiece from Marilynne Robinson.