[This is a journal in 3 sections. I didn’t start reading a new section until I’d finished writing about the one before, so I didn’t know how any of it would turn out until I got to the end.]
11 November 2014
The first third of the novel
It’s possible to imagine Marilynne Robinson publishing this and her previous two Gilead novels (Gilead and Home) as a single unit. Novelists often interleave stories from different points of view, so a Lila chapter might have been sandwiched between a John Ames chapter and a Jack Boughton chapter…. But she hasn’t done that, she’s done this, and the experience of reading it is quite different. And extraordinary. In Gilead Lila is a character whose name we don’t know for most of the novel. She is referred to as ‘your mother’ throughout, as John Ames writes a valedictory journal for their young son to read after his death. This will be soon, he thinks. Despite being the consolation of his later years – she had appeared in the town when he was already 67 years old, nearly ten years before that novel opens – she remains a shadowy, almost marginal character. I just finished re-reading Gilead, so it is strange for him to be the marginal figure, ‘the Reverend’, although we discover a dozen or so pages in that she is ‘the Reverend’s wife’. I won’t mention Gilead again. This novel is standing up perfectly well on its own.
There are different time-frames, which Robinson moves between seamlessly. The novel opens with what must be one of Lila’s earliest memories, a kind of new birth in a novel full of new births. A woman called Doll – we never learn anything else about her – rescues her from outside the house of a family who leave her to her own devices. The little girl, nameless as yet, lives a feral life. She seems to have spent whole days hollering and getting bad scratches from the cats she mistreats, and Doll is taking her away from all that. This is the life she never tells anybody about, and the same goes for the life on the road she lives until the bad times come eight years later. It sounds almost post-apocalyptic, and this apocalypse is ‘the Crash’. That reference to her not talking about it belongs to a later time-frame, when Lila is in yet another life. But we don’t yet know who the Reverend is, or how she has become his wife.
This is early in the novel. But time-frames are a way for novelists to manage memories and formative experiences, and soon things become a little more systematic. The moment when Lila discovers an empty shack not far from a town becomes a new starting-point, and memories of her childhood after the first few weeks of her rescue hang from this. But this novel isn’t about chronology. If anything, it’s about the discovery of language, about the words people use for abstractions that seem irrelevant even to the adult Lila when she first arrives, about names and, crucially, about reading. Lila can read and write before her arrival at the town, but she has only had one year’s schooling and is ashamed of this, as of everything about herself.
Names. In addition to a grandfather and father with the same name, John Ames had an older brother who died in infancy, also called John. Lila’s names are both accidental, but Ames tells her that when he ‘christens’ her – she hasn’t heard the word before – ‘it is your name.’ She notices that both her names, and both his, contain four letters each. When she asks him to spell the name of a man she once knew, Doane – this is early on, when Robinson gives us glimpses of their married life – she wonders what he thought she meant. ‘Done? Down? Maybe don’t….’ Doane’s partner calls herself Marcella, not her real name, and sometimes Doane says it with an emphasis in order to mock it. I’m sure there are others.
Lila – she is named by the woman whose house Doll takes her to – has previously had no good experiences. Doll treats kindness, even that of this woman who owes her nothing, with suspicion bordering on contempt. Most of the time before the Crash is spent with a group of itinerant farm workers – not gypsies, they proudly declare – and their existence is hand-to-mouth. The group leader, Doane, mistrusts Doll after she spends a settled year in a household, when she insists on Lila’s schooling. It is at the school that Lila is given a surname, Dahl, based on a mis-hearing of the name of her supposed mother. (Doll isn’t her mother.) Otherwise the group’s fierce independence – ‘fierce’ being far too mild a word for it – and the pitiful cynicism of Doane’s mistrust of absolutely everybody they meet, are the basis of her pathetically narrow education. He reserves special contempt for churches.
We hear about this as we also hear about Lila’s first weeks living in the shack near the town. She goes into the church one Sunday to shelter from the rain, and has absolutely no idea what Ames’s motive might be in speaking kindly to her. She knows that pastors are like everybody else, only interested in what they can get out of you. When it becomes clear later in the week that he has been encouraging his congregation to be kind to her she is full of resentment. Doane has told her all about people who act kindly so that they look good, or because they’ve been told to. She considers leaving. ‘She would decide one way or another for one reason or another, save up what she could while she could, and whatever she did, she’d get by, most likely.’ In fact, she considers leaving right up to the moment months later when, after some uncertainty, she and Ames finally agree to marry. But, after that first visit to the church, something has piqued her curiosity. Or she has become tired of the loneliness – a word she tries to avoid using because, as Doll used to say, it’s part of life. Whatever is inside her that she doesn’t recognise, it makes her stay.
Whatever is going on with the Reverend, it isn’t a courtship. Robinson never resorts to merely telling us that the adult Lila is like the scared, quiet child she used to be. She shows us, step by painstaking step, how the armour that has protected her for something like 30 years since the early 1920s is almost impenetrable. It isn’t Ames or the townspeople who penetrate it, it’s Lila herself. She has memorised a remark written in a note to Doll by her teacher of one year, that she was bright, and would ‘benefit’ from more schooling. Lila has to explain the word to Doll. Always the language, even of Lila’s thoughts, is pinched, stripped to the bone. Doane’s group was never in the habit of wasting words on anything that wouldn’t help to get them through the day. Now she has been shown a new language. She buys a pad of writing paper and begins to copy a remarkable passage from Ezekiel, ten times, then – this being a novel about beginnings – from Genesis, Book I Chapter 1. She doesn’t know how much she doesn’t know, but she knows there’s a lot of it.
There are false starts in her relationship with Ames and with the town, almost as many steps back as forward. As autumn approaches, she counts the money she has been able to earn and often thinks about buying a bus ticket. But running parallel to her ever pragmatic thoughts of the next move she’ll make, she has begun to realise that there doesn’t always have to be a reason for everything. Why is it better to walk with someone, even saying nothing, than to walk alone? What is the point of putting roses on the grave of Ames’s dead wife and child? (She does it anyway.) What on earth is the point of prayer? She asks fairly early on if Ames will baptise her, but then she stops going to the classes. She steals a bible. She takes home the sweater he offers her one cold evening. Robinson doesn’t need to tell us that this woman doesn’t know what she wants and needs.
And part of it is to do with naming things. Ames writes her a letter about his own faith, and it isn’t clear whether she is unfamiliar with the concepts or just unfamiliar with the words. Early on, she says something that Ames takes to be a question: ‘I just been wondering lately why things happen the way they do.’ He wrestles with possible ways of answering this for the rest of the summer, and still hasn’t succeeded to his own satisfaction by the time they agree to marry. Concepts that he has grown up with – he is third in a line of preachers with his name – such as grace, and faith and prayer, mean nothing to her.
One day, after he has been thanking her for the work she has been doing for him – she grows a few vegetables in the garden, she tends his wife and daughter’s grave – she blurts out that he should marry her. She is astonished at herself, having been making plans only moments before for the bus journey back to St Louis, or perhaps to California. I realise that in Lila, Robinson has created a character who is the polar opposite to Ames in one vital respect. He has spent a lifetime reading, writing and discussing every nuance of his own beliefs. She, bright as she is, has never spent a moment on such matters. And she is a stranger to herself. She doesn’t even know what she looks like. Despite his delight, Ames does not take her proposal at face value, and does not hold her to it. But later, after she has just told him that she won’t be marrying him, he baptises her using water from the river where she washes herself and her clothes.
This becomes the crucial moment of the novel. To her – and to him – he is always an old man, although in her thoughts he is ‘beautiful’. He has just baptised her, they are speaking matter-of-factly and familiarly about the catfish she had just caught before his unexpected arrival… and she asks him ‘Can you still get married to someone you baptised?’ In the next moments she tells him how badly she wants it before crying out ‘I can’t trust you!’ But he is so accepting of all the things she suddenly tells him about herself, about the whorehouse – ‘You probably don’t even know what that is’ – and ‘other things,’ that by the time he leaves she knows ‘she was going to marry this old preacher.’
Over many, many pages Robinson has moved Lila from being the suspicious, frightened creature whose early life we know all about to someone who could think of marrying the man who might offer her a different life. And she is still a suspicious, frightened creature. Maybe that’s what is so impressive about this novel.
The middle third – to the boy in the shack
Novels by Marilynne Robinson can take you to places you’ve never quite been to before. You might have been somewhere a bit like them, but not exactly. I can remember it happening in Housekeeping, and I wrote about the familiarity of ‘the sting of feeling different, or not understanding why everyone else seems to be in on some vital but forever mysterious project.’ This happens in Lila as well, but in a more gut-wrenching way. We haven’t lived anything like Lila’s life, yet Robinson is somehow able to make it seem not only plausible but recognisable. Episodes from Lila’s past are presented at the right time to illuminate why she is behaving as she does now. Except, of course, it’s more complicated than that, especially now that she is, painfully slowly, moving on from a mind-set that has served well enough for 30 years. Doll might have pointed out that she’s still alive, ain’t she? – Lila has told herself the same thing – but she’s no longer satisfied with it. She’s always wondered why things happen the way they do, and now, for the first time in her life, she feels the urgent need to find an answer. And she can only do that if she stays with this old man.
If I’ve made it sound glib I didn’t mean to, because that isn’t how it seems. Robinson doesn’t offer easy solutions, but puts in place ideas that rely on our understanding of what it feels like to be human. That line about why it feels better to walk with someone than to walk alone must hit a nerve with every reader, not just me. And, among a lot of other things, Lila is realising for the first time that what she had with Doll – and I’ll come back to Doll – is not a unique, one-off chance of intimacy in a hostile world. Early in the novel she regards loneliness as a given, something you have to live with like rain or the onset of winter. Now – and there are still nearly as many steps back as there are forward – she’s learning something new.
Where to start? Language, perhaps, as Lila begins to come to terms with the meagreness of her own. ‘There is no speech or language; their voice is not heard.’ Ames is quoting scripture, as always, and it seems to fit the sense that Lila is starting to have of being gagged. (This isn’t an image used in the novel, although the sense of it is there.) In fact it’s from a longer quotation that isn’t about people at all: ‘The heavens declare the glory of God…. Day unto day uttereth speech, and night unto night showeth knowledge.’ It seems to be Ames’s way – and Robinson’s – of showing that there can be something glorious that has nothing to do with words… which is fine if you’re the heavens, or day, or night, but if you’re human you need to be able to articulate. Lila, growing more confident, makes Ames explain. She has already let him know that when you’re talking to someone with no prior knowledge and little vocabulary, you have to explain everything. Later, he gives her a dictionary, and she wonders at it.
A few pages before this exchange he asks her what she is thinking about. ‘Nothing, really. Existence.’ Her reply makes him laugh with surprise, and we never know whether it’s the unexpected word or the fact that she is using it with precision. ‘I just don’t know what to think about it at all sometimes.’ She isn’t the only one, as Ames often admits to her. He tells her she should be teaching him.
Her existential musings carry on right through these middle chapters. Later she isn’t impressed by his conclusion that compared to faith the non-existence of God is ‘much harder to accept. There has to be more to it all.’ ‘Well,’ she says, ‘that’s just what you want to believe, ain’t it?’ And Ames must be aware of the thinness of his own reply: ‘That doesn’t mean that it isn’t true.’ He’s doing his best to put her mind at rest about what Boughton, the Presbyterian minister, has been insisting on – that only those who are baptised and acknowledge God can go to heaven. Lila has been worrying about the people in her old life, especially Doll, and Ames tries to convince her that he finds it hard to believe that a merciful God would send them all to hell. He says he doesn’t find it in himself even to believe in hell. She isn’t convinced.
Alongside these discussions there are things happening in these chapters. The marriage takes place, although even months later she still isn’t trusting him. Sometimes she gets into ‘his’ bed, and soon she realises she is pregnant. She decides not to tell him… and then she does. These days, her actions are often more generous than her first impulses. This is really borne out when, as a mild autumn gives way to winter, she goes for a walk to her old cabin. Pregnant as she is, she is wondering about the stash of money she had put by for her bus ticket, because she is thinking of using it for – what? A present for Ames, as she tells herself? Or a bus ticket after the child is born? This is how unsettled she still is.
There seems to be somebody living at the shack, although it’s empty when she turns up. The money is gone, and she decides to wait for a while. The encounter she has with the runaway boy, just old enough to have a wispy beard, shows what she has learnt. This woman, who would very recently have fought him for the money, lets him keep it. She even offers him her coat to use as a blanket in the night, before – as she strongly advises him – he returns to face whatever justice awaits at home. He refuses it, so she walks away… and comes back to lay the coat over him as he tries to sleep in the corner. Her place in heaven is assured, and she goes to look for Ames in the church.… But Ames has been worrying about her absence. He has got Boughton to drive him to the shack, lifts the coat from the sleeping form (thinking it’s her, obviously), and so on. At the end of the chapter they have all gone back to the shack, but the boy has gone, leaving the coat and the money in his panic.
Running parallel to all the talk about the point of existence and the possibility of God’s forgiveness, the time-line describing Lila’s childhood focuses more and more on Doll. As the bad times arrive the little band of land-workers begins to fall apart. Doane, who had shown a kind of manly – possibly fatherly – pride in his ability to keep them all alive and decent, has to resort to theft… and so on. Doll, suddenly seeming utterly worn-out, does her best for Lila. There’s a terribly poignant episode – poignant as much for its effect on Ames when Lila tells it to him as for its understated pathos – when she tries to sell Lila into marriage for her own good. She simply can’t think of any other way to keep her alive… but the worn-out old farmer, with his hair all combed, sees Lila looking at his boots, which are not a pair, and sends her away with a silver dollar. There’s as much decency in this other world as in Gilead.
Doll becomes more sympathetic as she resorts to ever more desperate acts, and the sound of her constantly sharpening the knife she is never without becomes as much a feature of Lila’s life as the motherly comfort she offers. I t becomes apparent that Doll ‘cut’ somebody even before she rescued her, which seems to account for her moving on that time when they had seemed settled. She’d got word that someone must have recognised her, perhaps by that birthmark on her face, and they’d left, with Lila in her school clothes and with none of their other belongings. It ends badly for Doll, following a knife-fight in which a man is badly cut. She’s close to death herself, but is arrested and put in jail to await trial. She’s probably able to escape because if she wandered off it would save the authorities a lot of trouble. Lila never does find her, even in a wintry cornfield, though she searches until she is so lost she is lucky to find a road out. And then the snows come.
Aargh. Through Ames, Robinson wants to make it clear this desperate, half-literate killer has a place in heaven waiting for her. I’ll buy that, because I always seem to buy anything Robinson wants to sell. And I’m interested where she’ll go with it now. I wonder if she’ll take the action beyond the end of Gilead.
The final third of the novel
I finished reading the book yesterday afternoon, and in the evening I was able to go and listen to Marilynne Robinson talking about it. That doesn’t happen often. One of the things she made clear was that she had not intended to write a series of Gilead novels. This is what I suspected, despite my imagining interleaved narratives when I first started reading Lila. The action of the novel ends shortly after the birth of the baby, nearly seven years before Gilead opens. Not much interleaving there. For some time – almost from the start – I’ve imagined Robinson having to reverse-engineer a story for Lila based on very meagre information in the earlier novel. I’m convinced that’s how it worked. She states that she doesn’t plan novels in advance, and I can believe that. It makes the seeming effortlessness of the novel’s structure all the more impressive.
The dual time-frame continues through these final chapters. Alongside a present-day narrative which, to be honest, contains few surprises, we get the story of what Lila did after the catastrophe of Doll’s death. (After all these years of reading her novels, I still don’t know how Robinson takes us to a place she somehow makes seem poignantly familiar.) At different points we get the desperation of that final search for Doll, the never-ending mortification of being the least pretty one in a brothel (‘You might at least try to smile’), and her later attempts to escape the loneliness by becoming lost, like the other ‘ghosts’ in the movie theatre, in the fantasies of other people’s lives. Robinson covers most of this in two long, mostly chronological sections, as though recognising that she needs to bring us up to date. She does this, right up to Lila’s first sight of the shack she notices when she’s hitching a ride….
We get more detail about the terrible time from when Doll starts to sharpen her knife obsessively. There really is somebody following – not, she says, because they want Lila back or even because she’s necessarily related, but because a grudge takes on its own life. There’s that ugly fight that leaves Doll covered in blood, and the days when the relatives, if that’s what they are, keep coming to taunt the sheriff into letting them lynch her. They bring the dead man’s coffin, and in it Lila sees the old man, his face reduced to little more than the white beak of his nose. This might be her father… but probably isn’t, Doll insists. How many degrees of separation can there be between Lila and any sense of a family before Doll?
Lila’s life in the brothel confirms her invisibility in the world. She has a new name, Rosie – ‘We already have a Doll’ – and her life, and those of the others, is like an imprisonment. ‘Mrs’ sells the girls their clothes, shoes, everything, so they are always in her debt. She keeps their only valuable possessions in her ‘credenza’ – Lila wonders at herself as she finally hands over Doll’s knife, after having kept it hidden for some time – to add another barrier to any of them leaving. Only one man ever means anything to her, Mack. She isn’t his girl, but ‘Missy’ is – another non-name – and when Missy is pregnant and there’s talk of the child being given away Lila sustains herself for months with dreams of taking it, just as she was taken from someone who wasn’t her mother. During this time she makes herself useful as a skivvy, and Mrs accepts this because the place has never been cleaned properly before. When Missy, aka Edith, is fetched by her sister Lila breaks open the credenza for her, takes Doll’s knife, and she’s out of there.
She gets the shop job, where she is surrounded by women with families and she tries to sustain a sense of a life through the movies. After maybe two years she sees Mack on the street and he recognises her. Nothing happens, but she is so unsettled she packs her bag and takes what savings she has to the bus station. A woman who just wants another living soul next to her on the journey – that motif again – offers her a ride. Then there’s a farmer who doesn’t need her to talk… and she sees the shack. I don’t know what it is with Marilynne Robinson and drifters, but Lila’s life could be Sylvie’s life before the main action of Housekeeping or Ruth’s life at the end of it.
Meanwhile, in the present, she’s still trying to come to terms with being a wife, and with having a child in her womb. As soon as it starts to kick she starts to speak to it, worries incessantly that any dark thoughts of hers might filter through to its unborn consciousness. Sometimes she shares her worries with Ames, who continues to do his best with her restless questioning. ‘She told the old man she’d been thinking about existence… she had never known the word. She wished she’d known about it sooner, or at least that there was a name for it.’ I should have asked Marilynne Robinson whether she sees knowledge as being all to do with the naming of things. Lila doesn’t know who the dead man is who might have been her father, and she doesn’t know his name. She doesn’t even know who she is when she only has an accidental name. Ames makes it her real name when he christens her, of course – before she becomes the second Mrs Ames. (She worries about the first one, not through jealousy but through the difficulties there might be in the afterlife. There won’t be any difficulties, Ames tells her.)
Ames has his own worries, of course. ‘I find myself thinking about the child – much of the time. So the idea that you might want to leave – it would be extremely difficult for me to live with that.’ Her reply is firm: ‘I ain’t leaving. Farthest thing from my mind.’ So that’s all right. Except: ‘If this was not entirely true, it was true enough.’ This isn’t the first time in this novel that statements have been true enough. ‘There has to be more to it all’ is one of Ames’s own. I’m not sure if Robinson means that we say, or actually think, whatever is necessary to get us through the day. In Lila’s case, as I’ve implied before, she offers herself get-outs she hopes she will never need to act upon. Maybe that’s what Doll’s knife symbolises. It lies there on the table – she has brought it to Ames’s attention, and she has told him about its past – and it offers her security that should no longer be in any doubt. But she does doubt it, of course, right to the end of the novel.
And it really is right to the end. The baby is born, during the unexpected last snows of a winter that had seemed to be over. Ames has said, over and over, whatever he can to assure her of their future together. He has also spoken to her of her life after his own death, that he regrets that in time she will be having to bring up their son on her own…. And she never, ever, loses sight of the knowledge she has never lost. Nobody knows what the future will bring. ‘So’ – and this is on the last page of the novel – ‘she told him she meant to keep that knife.’ It’s to do with the guilt and fear associated with Doll’s desperate use of it: ‘Thinking terrible thoughts to blunt her own fear.’ Those are Doll’s terrible thoughts in Lila’s imagination – but they’re Lila’s thoughts too.
‘Lila had borne a child into a world where a wind could rise that could take him from her arms…. Pity us, yes, but we are brave, she thought, and wild, more life in us than we can bear….’ And this isn’t only Lila’s thought, it’s Marilynne Robinson’s. She believes in the unimaginable greatness of the human soul, and it’s something that Lila is just beginning to understand. As she contemplates this new life, still strange to her, ‘That peace could only be amazement, too.’ She thinks about Ames, ‘probably still wondering if he had managed to bring her along into that next life’ – he knows that she has tried to un-baptise herself at least once – ‘Almost letting himself imagine grieving for her in heaven….’
But the last line, however ambiguous it might be, lets us know that she’s all right. ‘Someday she would tell him what she knew.’