Mark Greaves explores a novel that is a consummate study of the theology of loneliness

Lila by Marilynne Robinson
Virago, £16.99
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Marilynne Robinson is a rare phenomenon these days: a novelist consumed with Christian ideas about sin, salvation, grace and suffering. The novel, after all, is largely a secular form. The novel-reading public is largely secular, too. Yet Robinson, an American Calvinist, makes theology enthralling even for readers who do not believe in God. She deserves to be a household name, but, in Britain at least, has only a cult following.

Lila is her fourth novel. Her first, Housekeeping, was published in 1980. The rest – the Pulitzer Prize-winning Gilead, Home, and now Lila – were all published much later, in the last 11 years, and form a sort of trilogy, being set in the same fictional town of Gilead in Iowa.

None of the three can be explained in terms of their plot. Mostly there is little action. A troubled grown-up son returns home. An eccentric aunt looks after two orphans. The reader is not captivated by the plot, but by the interior world of a single character.

Lila does have its fair share of action, though. It begins with a girl, Lila, sitting on a stoop at night. She is a neglected child. A woman she knows, Doll, pitying her, wraps her up in a shawl and takes her away. Doll looks after her. The pair are inseparable, a “cow and her calf”. Lila keeps the shawl from that night “till it was worn soft as cobwebs”. They find a place among a group of itinerant farm workers and, for a while, lead a happy life.

The story is not told directly, but through the reminiscences of Lila a couple of decades later. She has just married a preacher, the Rev John Ames (the narrator of Gilead), and is pregnant. We learn slowly about her past at the same time as the awkward drama of her marriage unfolds.

In those early years, she recalls, “it seemed that they knew who they were and where they should be and what they should be doing”. Then comes “the crash” – the Wall Street crash of 1929 – and work dries up. Doane, the proud leader the group has relied on for so long, grows bitter, and seems to begin “hating the sight of them”. There is a betrayal and, later, a murder.

By the time Lila arrives in Gilead she is used to being alone. She finds an empty shack outside the town and lives off fish and wild carrots and nettles. On a walk into Gilead she is caught in the rain and dives into the church for shelter. There, she sees the Rev John Ames, her future husband, for the first time, and her life takes an improbable turn.

Lila may be partly a romance, but Robinson is more a poet of loneliness than of love. She has a wonderful knack of conveying the misery and solace of being alone. At one point Lila recalls laughing with Doll, “because of all the things they knew and nobody else did”. But, she adds, “if you’re just a stranger to everybody on earth, then that’s what you are and there’s no end to it. You don’t know the words
to say.”

In one riveting passage, this loneliness is vanquished with art. At the cinema, Lila and her fellow viewers “were ghosts all gathered in the dark … floating there just inches from a huge, beautiful face, to see the joy rise up in it … Like sparrows watching the sun come up.”

Mainly, though, the book is about a soul trying to make sense of life. Lila, in her first encounter with Ames, asks him “why things happen the way they do”. He gives a bland response about it being a deep mystery. Later, he remedies this with a breathtaking attempt to grasp the beginnings of an answer.

The dramatic action of the book is merely the setting for questions about what life is and why it happens. Robinson’s gift is to make her readers, the ghosts floating in the dark, feel like she has almost come up with an answer, too.

This article first appeared in The Catholic Herald magazine (12/12/14)