THERE are few better men in modern fiction than Rev John Ames, the protagonist of ‘Gilead’. Now meet his spouse, writes David Robinson
by Marilynne Robinson
Virago, 272pp, £16.99
In Gilead (2004), Marilynne Robinson introduced us to Rev John Ames, a 76-year-old midwestern pastor looking back at his life, and that of his father and grandfather before him, who were preachers too. He remembers watching his grandfather praying in the parlour ‘’looking attentive and sociable and gravely pleased. I would hear a remark from time to time, ‘I see your point,’ or ‘I have often felt that way myself.’”
His own faith is similarly deep, so leaving behind the world and all its beauty troubles him only slightly. He knows with Calvinist certainty that he will meet Lila, his young wife, and their seven-year-old son again in heaven. The book he is writing for his son will be his guide to the years they won’t live together before they are reunited in the afterlife. He has no doubts, because this is 1957, and the tide of belief runs high on the Lord’s prairie.
Gilead is the small town in Iowa where Rev Ames has his Congregationalist church. There is balm there, so sometimes if he wakes up in the early morning he will go there to pray. If he is not tired, he might then, before dawn, walk around the town, praying for its residents as he passes their houses.
The haunting wonder of Gilead was the way in which it captured this world of faith so perfectly, taking readers completely inside the mind of this palpably good, thoughtful man. Rev Ames’s faith seemed to make the world around him glow, the way it would if in every tree, in every shaft of sunlight between its leaves, in every conversation with your young son or your ridiculously young wife, you could see the tiniest fragment of God.
To those of us who rate Gilead as a modern classic, Lila – which retells the story from Ames’s wife’s point of view – is every bit as much of a delight as was her 2008 novel, Home, winner of that year’s Orange Prize, in which the focus was on the renegade son of Ames’s best friend. Strictly speaking, Lila is not a sequel, but a reimagining, so Robinson can be excused for not providing any exposition of what happened in the first novel of the (so far) trilogy. All the same, she doesn’t make it easy.
Even in Gilead, we knew that there was something different about Lila. She arrived out of the blue on Pentecost Sunday, and while we weren’t told about her past, we knew that she was so much younger than Rev Ames and that she had difficulty reading. To Ames, her appearance in his life, and her subsequent proposal of marriage, was a sign of grace. The pathos of this, so late in his life, and the way in which Ames sees the transcendent beauty of the ordinary things with a clarity that only those who are already dying can comprehend, are what gives the book its power.
Lila begins just about as far as humanly possible from any of this. A feral child, she never knew her real parents, only an equally damaged drifter, called Doll, who stole her from them. But the bond between them is deep: “Doll may have been the loneliest woman in the world, and she was the loneliest child, and there they were, the two of them together, keeping each other warm in the rain.”
Among Robinson’s paratactic cadences, time often slips back or speeds forward, sometimes within the same paragraph: back to a short-term neighbour calling Lila “the spindliest damn child I ever saw” when she and Doll team up with gangs of casual field workers in the Depression, searching out temporary jobs; forward to squatting in an empty cottage near Gilead, and finally stumbling, so weak with hunger that the candles seem to shiver, into Rev Ames’s Pentecost Sunday service.
Not that she knows anything about Ames, of course: in Lila’s story he is unnamed – either “the reverend” or “a big silvery kind old man holding a baby over the baptism font” as Lila comes in out of the rain that Sunday night. Nor is there anything predictable about their romance. Lila is damaged and knows it. She is unschooled (apart from one blissful year when she and Doll weren’t on the run) and barely lettered. There is violence in her background, rape and prostitution too. “You don’t know anything about me,” she warns Ames. “I got feelings I don’t know the name for … I wouldn’t wish ’em on a snake.”
Yet RObinson’s depiction of Lila’s mashed-up memories makes sense. In an ordered life, like that of a normal pastor’s wife, where “you’re sort of expected to be agreeable” (she can’t do that, she warns Ames) there are clearly delineated staging posts for memory to cling to: a regular childhood, discovery of boys, education, exams, marriage. Lila hasn’t any of that: just the cherished memory of Doll, who kidnapped her and loved her, and who protected her with a knife that Lila carries still.
She carries that knife because Lila is, even now, unsure about trust. Happiness is strange to her, a lesson she missed out on: so she starts out suspicious of this old man, who takes her seriously and answers her questions, even the ones that sound stupid.
He, too, is wary. One night, a younger man from her past could turn up at his door asking for her and she would go away with him, surely? Their chats about theology (the only part of the novel, incidentally, I don’t find convincing) would count for nothing. Her new life as the pastor’s wife and the mother of his child would implode in a fit of irresponsibility. The courtship between Ames and Lila, slipped, non-chronologically into odd corners of the narrative, is therefore tentative, and then tender, and then trusting, and then true. And, just like Gilead, tinged with heartbreaking beauty.