Back in the land of Gilead, Marilynne Robinson's latest novel Lila revisits the story of the Preacher John Ames and turns its steady gaze upon his second wife, Lila.
Lila, whose name not only evokes the lily of the resurrection but also echoes Lilith and Lamia, is as soon as she is named, already marked contradictorily as full of grace, and both fallen and serpentine. She arrives in Ames' life with a knife in her garter and a past full of hardship and it seems she is put there as much as anything in order to question his faith. In Gilead, Ames blesses his good fortune in finding love at this late and unlikely stage in his life. In Lila, we are invited to consider this surprising blessing as it is experienced, no less powerfully, by his wife.
Like Robinson's previous novels, Lila is deeply philosophical, concerned with the nature of love, of redemption, of salvation. And the conclusions she draws here are just as pitiless. Love may not always represent salvation. The hand of intimacy, however longed for, might be as scalding as any hand laid in anger upon a body, suggests Robinson. And so, she urges, we must proceed in love with great gentleness, careful not to judge, just as careful of our own scar tissue as of the beloved's.
The novel is structured with two distinct narrative arcs, the story of Ames' and Lila's courtship and marriage, and the story of Lila's childhood and life before she stumbled into Gilead. Both narratives are shot through with deprivation, hardship, abandonment. But both are written with a kind of radiance and an elegant simplicity that elevates them beyond the merely sincere to something much more revelatory than that, something which marks Marilynne Robinson as a truly unique writer of contemporary fiction. Her novels are a meditation upon the nature of grace, which is to say, upon what it means to be human, at fault, disappointing to those who might nevertheless love us. And because Robinson is so faithfully preoccupied with the relationship between suffering and spirituality, her characters emerge as beloved: shown in a kind of infinite light, they shine with truth.
Regularly, in this novel we are taken by surprise. We experience, with Lila, and with Ames, the consolations of faith, we share in their spiritual insights, and we are brought, in the end to regard them with awe and joy, because they are so humanly, wretchedly lovely.
The copyright of this post belongs to Claire Steele