A recurring theme in Marilynne Robinson’s fiction is home. Two of her novels (Housekeeping and Home) have the word home or synonyms for their titles. All three books in her magnificent Gilead trilogy deal with people who are either at home in the small town of Gilead, Iowa, or struggling with what it means to go from or come to there. The latest, Lila, is the story of a young woman who has spent most of her life homeless, born and reared without a surname, traveling from place to place alone or with a band of vagrants. Now she is invited to make a home in Gilead, taking the Rev. John Ames as her (much older) husband, being enfolded into the life of his church, getting embraced by the town’s citizens.
The thing is, Lila isn’t entirely sure she wants a home. She’s wild at heart, having spent most of her life outdoors and with meager, transitory shelter at best. She has made a friend of yawning loneliness. She knows little besides hard work and wandering.
Lila is a story, but it is not one that is plot-driven. The book is ruminative, one long meditation (without chapter breaks) on Lila’s life—her wanderings with fellow vagrants; a stretch in a St. Louis whorehouse; the guilt and heroism of her benefactor, who killed a menacing man with a knife; visits at a camp meeting; the new and ambivalently held memories made in Gilead. Lila reflects on all us in this an unstudied, immediate, but intelligent way. She is never far from nature and its wildness and rhythms. She folds in her own ponderings of Scripture (especially Ezekiel), which she reads with a refreshing puzzlement and wonder. In this she is gently guided by Rev. Ames, who himself is still able to be puzzled and struck anew by Scripture and the mysteries of theology. The tender, never grasping, interaction between Rev. Ames and his new wife is beautiful, one of the most entrancing depictions of intimacy I’ve ever read.
Lila is a book to immersed in. In its quiet way, it is wholly engrossing. It induces the stillness and peace of mind its characters are struggling to attain. Sinking into the mind of a barely-educated protagonist, it can seem artless but is always masterfully artful. I haven’t come across much else like it. So I guess the only thing to do is to read it again.