Tuesday, March 26, 2024

the last book I read

Lila by Marilynne Robinson.

A child is sitting on an exterior step, by the front door of a house, having been banished from the house. It's not clear what relation the people in the house are to her - parents? adoptive family? random strangers? - but she has clearly committed some transgression, probably something as innocuous as crying, or asking for more food.

Her name is Lila, and the woman who comes to collect her is called Doll. They clearly already know each other, and Doll may or may not live in the house, but is Lila being rescued, or abducted? Whichever it is, they're stuck with each other now and, it turns out, for the next few decades, on and off. Doll is a volatile character given to obsessive sharpening of the pocket knife she carries on her at all times and isn't shy about getting all slashy and stabby with, given enough provocation. 

The pair drift apart and back together - Lila spends some time as a prostitute in St. Louis but decides to give up the old whoring game (hardest game in the world, etc etc) and get a regular job as a cleaner in a hotel, which she holds onto until Doll suddenly turns up on her doorstep liberally festooned in her own and someone else's blood, and then subsequently escapes from police custody to presumably die somewhere. 

Lila decides that upping sticks and moving on again might be the thing to do at this point, and after many wanderings finds an abandoned shack near a stream on the outskirts of a remote Iowa town. This town turns out to be Gilead, and on one of her occasional forays into town she takes refuge from a rainstorm in a church and catches the eye of preacher John Ames. Ames is sixty-something (we're invited to infer that Lila is perhaps in her thirties, but with the face and body of someone who's endured a tough life) and a widower since his twenties, but apparently still with enough sap in the veins to be intrigued by Lila, both as a potential soul to be saved and possibly also in, you know, That Way

Their rough and awkward courtship is not without some problems, mainly on Lila's side; a life spent moving from place to place builds a steely self-reliance and a reluctance to form attachments, lest that lead to disappointment, betrayal, or just a sense of obligation that might tie you to a place for longer than you'd otherwise like. There is also some self-doubt: am I allowing myself to be persuaded just because of the prospect of security, protection, food and a long-term roof over my head, rather than the supposed "proper" reasons, like love?

Lila and John Ames are married, to the slight bewilderment of the townsfolk who view her as some sort of strange semi-feral creature, and fairly shortly after that Ames successfully impregnates her, the randy old goat. This puts a new perspective on Lila's situation: sure, she could just up sticks and hoof it into the night even now, either before or after the child is born, but now she has two other people whose feelings she needs to consider. 

This is 1950s rural Iowa, so childbirth and its immediate aftermath isn't a risk-free process, and there are a few bumps in the road: a major snowstorm while Lila is waiting for her labor to start which threatens to cut them off from medical help, and the general scrawniness of the child when he finally arrives, which prompts some concern over whether he'll survive. But he does, and the book ends with Lila contemplating her elderly husband cooing over the new arrival in the kitchen, her contentment tempered with the knowledge that John Ames probably won't live long enough to see him grow up.

That last thought prefigures the events of Gilead, the first novel in this loose series, wherein John Ames, having been given a gloomy prognosis for his heart condition, writes a letter to his seven-year-old son, Robert. Lila is the third novel in the series (Home being the second) and has a different structure from the first two: Gilead was a series of letters, Home had multiple viewpoints, Lila is much more narrowly focused on Lila's own viewpoint, which is an interesting one but makes for a slightly more claustrophobic read. We don't really meet any of the wider cast of characters from the earlier books, John Ames aside - old man Boughton (whose children provide most of the narrative in Home) pops up here and there but that's about it. 

So this is more of a character study than the other two books, its themes being the damage childhood trauma and hardship inflict, and the difficulty of shaking that stuff off later in life, even when fate hands you something on a plate that you ought to view as a good thing. Kick a dog for long enough and even kindness may be repaid with a savage bite on the ankle. To put it another way, they fuck you up, your mum and dad, even if it's just by being entirely absent from your life. 

My harsh critical judgment here is that Lila probably isn't quite as good as the other two books in the series, but that it's very good nonetheless. As with the other two books, both of which feature a religious minister as a major character, there a strong religious thread here, and Robinson's opinion on the subject is pretty clear, but it stops just short of being an irritant for the godless reader. The fourth book in the series, Jack, features (as its title suggests) Jack Boughton, a major character in each of the first two books and as a flawed and godless type himself by far the most interesting character in the series. I assume that the fourth book will be the final one, but I guess I only do that by drawing a subconscious parallel with the Alexandria Quartet (featured on this blog here, here, here and here) whose structure the Gilead books echo, in a broad sense anyway, by having the same series of events described from multiple viewpoints. Another consideration here is that Robinson is 80 and has averaged four to six years between books in the series, so, you know, Just Saying

Anyway, Lila won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction in 2014, just as Gilead did in 2004. My list here goes: 1975, 1991, 2000, 2002, 2004, 2009, 2014.

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