(Christian Courier Review, April 13, 2015)
Frankly, it’s a little unnerving to review Marilynne Robinson’s latest work Lila, a novel that revisits Gilead and Home. I’m so smitten with Robinson’s prose, I can’t even pretend to be objective. I agree with Mark O’Connell, New Yorker contributor, who said, “When I say that I love Marilynne Robinson’s work, I’m not talking about half of it; I’m talking about every word of it” (“The First Church of Marilynne Robinson,” May 30, 2012). A dazzling wordsmith, Robinson captures the evanescent radiance of the physical world, while simultaneously conjuring the transcendence of the world beyond. It’s exhilarating and consoling to read a book in which the lustre of the Christian faith is revealed with such sympathetic polish and God’s sovereignty delineated with such gravitas.
Lila is monumental. In addition to Christian topics like the Bible, baptism and talking to Jesus, the novel probes romance, labour, language, education, parenting and more. It’s just that comprehensive a story. But, fear not, it’s a story first, one that enthralls. The protagonist, Lila, is incandescent, with gritty spirit and fierce, though unschooled, intellect. A peripheral character in Gilead and Home, Lila is now given the chance to speak and, in fact, gets the last word.
A neglected child, Lila is rescued by Doll, who steals her to save her. At first, Lila resists: “If there was anyone in the world the child hated worst, it was Doll.” Lila’s later perception of her rescue is unwittingly biblical: “And she had a thought that she had been born a second time, the night Doll took her up from the stoop and put her shawl around her and carried her off through the rain.” Doll proves her love repeatedly – caring for Lila on the run, eking out a living as a migrant worker, sacrificing for her at every turn. Her selfless acts build to a towering, if blurry, reflection of God.
The crux of the novel is Lila’s question: “I just been wondering lately why things happen the way they do.” Her childhood deprivation, confinement in a brothel and loss of Doll lead Lila to a grim view of existence: “… why didn’t it roar and wrench itself apart like the storm it must be, if so much of existence is all that bitterness and fear?” And so, Job-like, Lila challenges the Almighty: “But if God really has all that power, why does He let children get treated so bad? Because they are sometimes. That’s true.” Her own life is evidentiary.
Lila’s indictment of God is brokered by Congregationalist pastor, John Ames, whom she marries, a Gomer and Hosea parallel that dumbfounds them both. She asks him, “What do you ever tell people in a sermon except that things that happen mean something?” So Rev. Ames is called upon to defend God to his wife. Can his deeply cherished theological convictions satisfy Lila? Can his faith salve her brazen need? He concedes, “Lila, you always do ask the hardest questions.”
His first response is brusque: “I believe in the grace of God. For me, that is where all these questions end. Why it’s pointless to ask them.” Nonetheless, within the incongruity and ordinariness of their marriage, within the practical earthly kindnesses they offer one another — home, garden, respect, friendship, and, finally, a child – a halo of sacred space opens up for tender spiritual discourse.
As readers know from Gilead, Ames is ill. His looming mortality presses him to grapple earnestly with Lila’s question: “Things happen for reasons that are hidden from us, utterly hidden for as long as we think they must proceed from what has come before, our guilt or our deserving, rather than coming to us from a future that God is his freedom offers to us. Things are hidden in the mystery of God.”
But, as Lila and their son are baptized by his hand, she reaches some conclusions of her own about the mystery of God. Within that mystery, she determines, Doll will not be lost forever, and the puzzle of election will be resolved: “She thought maybe, just by worrying about it, Boughten would sweep up China into an eternity that would surprise him out of all his wondering. God is good, the old men say. That would be the proof.”
Lila the nobody, child without a name, lands, providentially, in Gilead where she does indeed find balm. And a voice. Even her preacher husband is eager to learn from her: “I know you have things to tell me, maybe hundreds of things, that I would never have known. Things I would never have understood.”
The boundlessness of Lila’s “last word” will generate debate among Christian readers. It already has. Check out Linda McCullough Moore’s “Lila: A dissenting view” (booksandculture.com). But, for me, Lila’s own wild trajectory to salvation validates her extravagant hope. If grace could fall on her, it could fall on anyone, on any wild, brave sinner with “the fire infolding itself” within.