In my twenties I loved Marilynne Robinson’s novel Housekeeping, and now in my fifties I’ve found that I can love her new novel Lila in much the same way. This is a bit of a surprise, because I didn’t care for Home or Gilead, the middle novels, at all.
In Lila, Robinson has regained her stride, and even though she walks over much of the same kind of territory, it seems to me that she does it with an enlarged view of the world. Where Housekeeping’s characters drifted around the fictional Idaho town that resembled the novelist’s own hometown, Lila’s characters have traveled around the country before ending up in rural Iowa, where the novelist herself has been living and teaching for the last few years.
The novel is set in the 1930’s and the title character, Lila, has been raised by a drifter she knows only as “Doll.” Together with a small group Lila calls “Doane’s people,” they move around the country looking for work “as long as the times were decent. That would have been about eight years, counting backward from the Crash, not counting the year Doll made her go to school.” During that year, Lila remembers, they lived in a boardinghouse in Tammany, Iowa. “Doll did the cleaning and laundry and looked after the poultry and the gardens, and Lila helped with all of it.” Lila’s memories are interspersed with the story of how she has ended up in Iowa again, without Doll and falling in love with an old man who is a preacher.
Both Lila and the old man are interested in existential questions, but they have to dance around each other in conversation because she doesn’t have the philosophical vocabulary to fully articulate what she’d like to ask and he has a limited Christian vocabulary for trying to answer:
“I just been wondering lately why things happen the way they do.”
“Oh!” he said. “Then I’m glad you have some time to spare. I’ve been wondering about that more or less my whole life.”
Although Doane’s people mostly steered away from churches, Lila has had one or two uneasy experiences with preachers. Once, when they left her at a church, before Doll came and found her, Lila remembers:
“An orphan is what she was, and she knew it then, and she thought that preacher must somehow know it too, and be ready with the frightening word that would take her life away from her if only he chose to say it. 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. Guilty. 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.”
Lila and the old preacher marry, but neither is sure of the other’s love, even when Lila gets pregnant. When Lila gives her winter coat to a homeless boy, the preacher is worried that the boy has stolen it from her, while the boy himself “laughed just the way she might have laughed all those years ago, for pleasure that seemed like a piece of luck, a trick played on misery and trouble.” Where the old man sees narrative, Lila and the boy see only a moment.
As Lila teaches herself to read and write, however, she sees more of her life as narrative, and even begins to imagine one with the baby in it. She starts with what her husband tells her are “the very hardest parts—for somebody starting out. For anybody. That’s fine. They’re Scripture, too.” She starts with Job, which she originally thinks is job—as in work–but then she carries on with it and finds that she identifies with Job’s son: “She’d felt that way, too, plenty of times.”
The way Lila and the preacher learn to communicate is by seeing glimpses of their life together as neither narrative nor moment but a fragile combination of both that could end at any time, even though they mean to go on loving each other and their son. As a mother, I particularly appreciate Lila’s realization that “There isn’t always someone who wants you singing to him or nibbling his ear or brushing his cheek with a dandelion blossom. Somebody who knows when you’re being silly, and laughs and laughs.”
This novel brings the character of Lila to life and doesn’t call too much attention to the way it conveys her thoughts and dreams, which, for me, makes it the best kind of literary novel.