by Marilynne Robinson
In this, her third ‘Gilead’ novel, Marylinne Robinson tells us the early story of Lila, and how she came to be minister John Ames' (the narrator of GILEAD) young second wife.
The story begins with the heart-breaking description of a small neglected child of four or five years, forced out of the shack she lives in with who knows how many migrant workers (presumably at least one of them her parent) to sit or even sleep on the stoop, or under the house, cold and alone. Along comes Doll, who does a bit of sweeping and cleaning for the shacks’ inhabitants and who the child hates most because “She’d go scrubbing at her face with a wet rag or she’d be after hair with a busted comb trying to get the snarls out” but Doll also covers her with her shawl at night when she finds her sleeping under the table and leaves an apple and water by her for her to find in the morning. Then one night Doll makes an impulsive decision: she takes the child. They run off and pitch up at a nearby cabin where an old woman takes them in. They clean the girl up and, because she can’t tell them her name, they call her Lila.
Lila and Doll take to the road and join a work crew of itinerants who sleep rough and get pennies for doing odd jobs, gardening, fruit picking, anything to keep body and soul together. It’s a family of sorts with a definite pecking order in which Doll and Lila are categorically at the bottom. But they make the best of it and they manage to live like this for years. Their devotion to each other is profound and enables them to survive. When Doll decides that Lila needs an education they stay for a year in one place where she learns to read and write. But then it’s time to move on again.
Years pass, Doll dies and Lila (after a stint in a St Louis brothel where she ends up doing the cleaning – she’s no good as a prostitute) she arrives in Gilead, tired, cold and hungry. She claims a deserted shack and starts to do odd jobs for the town folk of Gilead. Lila discovers that the minister’s first wife and child died a long time ago and she starts to look after their grave and sneaks into his garden to tend the vegetable plot. She also goes to church where she sits at the back and listens to John Ames' sermons only half understanding what is being said. Ames, of course, notices her there and they strike up an unlikely relationship. The minister is delighted by Lila with her quest for knowledge and her constant deliberations about the meaning of existence. She asks Ames to baptise her and then when, out of the blue, she proposes that they marry, Ames doesn’t hesitate. His congregation are as non-judgemental and as charmed by her as he is, despite his being twice her age. Only his old friend the Reverend Boughton has reservations, but even he comes round in the end. A child is born and those of you who have read GILEAD will know that that book is a letter from Ames, written as he is dying, to that child.
I was mesmerised by this book. In her simple but beautiful prose, Marylinne Robinson delivers a breath-taking evocation of love, loneliness and the mystifying wonders of existence. Awesome.
Published by Virago – 261 pp.
Read our 2009 interview with Marylinne Robinson.