Reading Lila, by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Marilynne Robinson, is like listening to a 1930s blues song. It is beautiful, melodic and enjoyable, as well as dark and, in parts, terribly sad. Its Depression-era protagonist, Lila, is mistreated and neglected as a toddler. We meet her as she is being rescued – or stolen, depending on your point of view – by an itinerant worker named Doll, who raises the child as her own.
But poor Lila never truly escapes the impact of her horrible early childhood. She mistrusts nearly everyone and expects at any moment to be let down and abandoned again. The only way to survive such emotional devastation is to cultivate a hard exterior that combines apathy with a kind of pauper’s pride. Lila refuses to let others think they are better than her, but at the same time knows this façade is a joke. “It’s just amazing how anybody at all can hurt your feelings if they want to,” Lila observes. Her self-hatred always hovers just below the surface. “Sometimes she thought she wanted the worst thing to come finally, a shame that would kill her.”
The narrative skips back and forth in time. In the past, young Lila rambles the countryside with Doll, surviving sometimes on soup made from weeds or by doing farm and housework in exchange for food. In the present, adult Lila is courted by a kindly old reverend whose love and gentleness confuse her. She is sure he can’t be sincere and occasionally tries to sabotage the nascent relationship “so that she could say when it ended she always knew it would”.
The reverend teaches Lila about religion, and through her direct and brusque challenges he is forced to admit there are many questions the Bible cannot satisfyingly answer. One of the central themes is Lila’s attempt to reconcile the lives of the only family she ever knew with a religion that would damn to hell those who steal or kill. Many of the people in her past, such as Doll, were “good” by Bible standards, until poverty drove them to acts of shameful desperation.
In a career spanning nearly 40 years, Robinson has written just three other books: Housekeeping (1980), Gilead (2004) and Home (2008). Lila is a prequel to Gilead, and confirms Robinson’s inclination for quality over quantity. This is a stunningly beautiful book; her prose is short, succinct and full of piercing observations about the most complex facets of the human condition. LL
Hachette, 272pp, $29.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 18, 2014 as "Marilynne Robinson, Lila ". Subscribe here.