Afearsome act of spiritual bravery blazes at the center of Marilynne Robinson’s new novel. A woman — newly baptized, newly married, newly pregnant — rises before daybreak, slips out of her marital bed, and goes to the river to wash “in the water of death and loss and whatever else was not regeneration.” In other words, to unbaptize herself.
The woman, Lila, is the wife of John Ames, the Congregationalist minister introduced to readers in Robinson’s Pulitzer-winning, 2004 novel, “Gilead,” which took the form of a letter written by Ames to his young son. That glorious story was infused with wistfulness; Ames, almost 70 at the birth of this child, pens his epistle in “the expectation of death.” It was infused, too, with balance and order. Even at his most anguished, Ames remains measured, his prose stately.
“Lila,” the third book in what has already become a classic series (“Home,” the second book, focused on Ames’s neighbor, a Presbyterian minister, and the return of his prodigal son to Gilead, Iowa), is altogether different. For one thing, Lila, the young wayfarer Ames marries late in life, doesn’t write her own story. We are privy to her thoughts, but kept at a mediating distance by third-person narration. For another, her recollections don’t have his formal rhythms; they seem to gust willy-nilly, insisting themselves patchwork-like on her consciousness. And where Ames, though capable of desolation, is continually restored to peace by the discipline of his faith, Lila, having been offered for the first time in her life a hearth, feels an almost vascular tug toward the harsh rootlessness of her origins.
Her earliest memories: a house where people sleep on gunnysacks on the floor; a stoop where someone puts her if she cries; a table under which she learns to take refuge. This is her life until, feverish and hungry and covered with chigger bites, she is stolen one night, saved by a kindhearted itinerant named Doll, who delivers her into the slightly more hospitable wilderness of a life on the road. For years they travel with a small band of migrant workers, a life that offers scant structure, and no articulated system of belief. Wary of religion (“churches just want your money”), these travelers go without God.
Then the Dust Bowl comes, bringing with it biblical destruction. Violence and crime cause the group to scatter. Lila finds work in a whorehouse, then as a hotel maid. Eventually she drifts into Gilead, where she meets providence in the form of an abandoned shack. She holes up there, meaning to move on. But one wet morning, seeking shelter from the rain, she steps into a church. Ames is inside.
“She watched him and forgot she was in the room with him and he would see her watching. He baptized two babies that morning. He was a big, silvery old man, and he took each one of those little babies in his arms as gently as could be.” Even as she sits there (already, unbeknownst to her, falling in love), Lila reflects on her own abandonment and subsequent rebirth, “the night Doll took her up from the stoop and put her shawl around her and carried her off through the rain.” The rain was not a true baptism, though, and before long, in a scene riven with beauty and pain and desire, Lila finds herself being properly baptized by the reverend down at the river. From one sacred rite they proceed swiftly to another: marriage.
Lila finds herself with child, and the scraps of memory that flutter and flap ceaselessly through her mind become doubly burdensome. “She thought, An unborn child lives the life of a woman it might never know, hearing her laugh or cry, feeling the scare that makes her catch her breath, tighten her belly.” She worries that thoughts of her past will harm the infant in her womb. She worries her history of abandonment will repeat itself in a compulsion to abandon this life in Gilead. Perhaps most troublingly, she worries that embracing God means spurning Doll and those other “heathens” who constituted the only family she’d ever known.
Which returns us to that terrible act of courage: Lila’s attempt to “[wash] the baptism off me.” Here is a woman waging an interior battle between her sudden appetite for the illuminations of scripture and her love for those who rescued her from darkness. She cannot reconcile herself to the notion “that souls could be lost forever because of things they did not know, or understand, or believe.” In her steely concentration and her shambolic purity, Lila harbors the potential to become a great, complex character – as great and complex, in her own way, as the Ames of “Gilead,’’ or the Sylvie of “Housekeeping,’’ Robinson’s 1980 novel, which portrayed a different sort of drifter, an unapologetically whimsical and enigmatic soul.
I read “Lila’’ anticipating a moment when she might grow fully into that potential, take her inner battle public, and engage her husband in urgent theological debate. We see a spark of willingness to do so. Late in the book, when the reverend declares, “God is good,” Lila counters: “[S]ome of the time.” What a rich feast of a novel this might have been had it chosen to explore that conflict wholly! And who better than Robinson, preeminent among contemporary American novelists in addressing the role of the sacred in our lives, to take that on? But the deck feels stacked. Unlike Ames, whose humanity Robinson brings so beautifully and complexly to life, Doll and her cohort read as types, like an idea of what destitute characters should be. And time and again she has Lila demur, self-efface, comply.
Her husband proceeds to correct her — “All of the time.” — and their disagreement ends, as do a great number of their conversations, with Ames laughing. His laughter isn’t unkind or patronizing; he’s too modest and contemplative for that. But I couldn’t help feeling Robinson herself was being paternalistic, using her character’s laughter to derail further reckoning and assert her own dismissive certainties. In the final pages Lila appears intellectually and spiritually subdued, sitting with her just-baptized baby in her arms and thinking of something Ames always says, that “we should attend to things we have some hope of understanding, and eternity isn’t one of them . . . this world isn’t one either.” I’m not sure the Lila who works so fiercely to scrub the baptismal waters off her soul ever gets her due.
Leah Hager Cohen is the author, most recently, of “No Book But the World.”