The third novel in Robinson’s Gilead trilogy, Lila is the eponymous story of the Reverend John Ames’ much younger wife, whose poverty-stricken and itinerant childhood in Dust Bowl America has shaped her into a deeply insecure, yet compassionate and courageous human being. The narrative is a mixture of omniscient third person narration and Lila’s own internal reflections, the impetus to move forward mainly derived from the vacillations of the fledgling and highly unusual relationship between herself and the aged Reverend, so that even after they are married the reader worries about the durability of the union, their very affection for one another part and parcel of their fear: ‘The more she might seem like a wife to him,’ Robinson writes, ‘the more he would fear the loss of her.’ It means that in a novel which meanders chapter-less through a plethora of apparently random details and decades, we never come to rest – or wish to – right up to the last page, so entwined do we become with Lila’s own fear-laden consciousness.
Though Robinson’s project is essentially spiritual, it is her deft characterisation (in this case, of Lila’s quietly burgeoning love for her husband, who has himself known great personal loss) along with her exquisite prose that make for an affecting and transcendent reading experience, rather than any overt dogma. The reason the spiritual dimension of Robinson’s world is so palatable is that it is ensconced in the everyday: a field, a little valley, a flock of pelicans, a day of snow and silence. What is more, her characters’ redemptive trajectories are couched in the gentlest, driest humor, so distinctively Robinsonian: Lila’s childhood friend’s experimentation with a member of the opposite sex, for example, is described as her getting ‘very curious’ and ‘finding out whatever it was she wanted to know’; once this curiosity has been sated she moves on to other things; ‘it had taken Lila’, Robinson tells us, ‘a little longer.’
At its’ heart Lila is concerned with reconciling a God of love with a world of suffering but because Robinson never alights on an explanation and places the debate in such halting and beautiful terms – in the mouths of characters whose search for meaning for the most part ends in uncertainty – the novel is far from a sermon. Take the concluding words of a letter written by the Reverend to Lila before they are married and little more than strangers, for instance: ‘I have struggled with this my whole life’ [Ames writes]…‘I still have not answered your question, I know, but thank you for asking it, I may be learning something from the attempt’. And this attempt by Lila to understand a biblical verse that has captured her imagination:
‘And there was a voice above the firmament that was over their heads; when they stood, they let down their wings. She didn’t want to know what the verse meant, what the creatures were. She knew there were words so terrible you heard them with your whole body. Guilt. And there were voices to say them. She knew there were people you might almost trust who would hear them too, and be amazed, and still not really hear them because they knew they were not the ones the words were spoken to.’
It is in such a spirit of gracious humility that Robinson makes her offering, and it is hard not to be moved and awed by the result.
Review by Emily