This article originally appeared on the Georgetown Voice on 10/29/14. Find it here.
“Doll may have been the loneliest woman in the world, and [Lila] was the loneliest child, and there they were, the two of them together, keeping each other warm in the rain.”
Lila, the fourth novel by Marilynne Robinson, unearths a new facet of her stories—all of which take place in the small town of Gilead, Iowa. In her latest novel, she develops the story of a curious but undeveloped character that was presented in the background of her highly acclaimed novels, Home and Gilead. Although the story is written in third-person, Robinson’s prose melds effortlessly with Lila’s voice, bright but not formally educated, as she works through simple questions that challenge everyone, such as, “Why do things happen the way they do?”
Lila continues to take on Robinson’s recurring themes of poverty, Calvinism, and love—she dares to disseminate her perceptive novels in this day and age, when religion is often frowned upon, and fictional love is usually superficial. She challenges the modern thought process by using the influence of religion as an integral component of her multifaceted fictional characters, suggesting that you don’t need a wide canvas to be a good author. You just need to be exceptional at illuminating small details.
We meet Lila roaming in a cold forest as a lone, dirty child covered in more cuts than clothes and severely weakened by her struggle. She’s found by Doll, a lonely woman in a similar situation, who eventually becomes her surrogate mother. They form a strong bond from the beginning that underlies all of Lila’s loving thoughts, which appear dispersed and rare.
An unlikely protagonist, Lila has fragmented thoughts derived from her tumultuous life and her difficulty in understanding the way the world works. She grows up in a rugged and poor situation, not uncommon during the Great Depression, but her early childhood is evidently more dejected than most.
Later on, as a grown woman who moves into a shack in Gilead, this past is shown in her rough personality and blunt conversation. But behind her tough facade lies hidden introspection that is often very different from her spoken words. Lila’s endearing thoughts depend on natural metaphors to make sense of the most abstract parts of her world, and her dreamy Midwestern sentence construction resonates in your ears while reading.
“She’d stuffed [his]handkerchief into it, too, because it reminded her of a wound and trying to blot it up or bind it. The field was turning brown and the milkweed pods were dry and prying themselves open. Everything in that shack she had not hidden was gone, every useless thing.”
Modern devout religious writers with serious clout in the exclusive literary world are few and far between. Robinson has a talent for weaving in Calvinism without being didactic but nevertheless, her faith is present and important. Her spiritual questions incite similar questions in her readers.
The intersection of faith and the high arts is noteworthy, but faith and contemporary creative writing is a more obscure and untrodden territory, making Robinson’s distinguished work even more exceptional. In early eras, art was mainly used as a form of religious expression and admiration, but today, popular art is used almost exclusively as a means for self-expression and discovery. As much of modern civilization begins to move more and more away from religion, it seems that an increasing number of people are finding their way through creativity and art instead. For some, art has filled the role of religion.
Although religion tends to be an uncomfortable topic at times because of modern-day controversies, we should always take note of the functions of religion and the reasons people choose to follow. Lila never directly purports to have any opinion about religion, despite Robinson’s ideology, but it still hovers over that intersection of faith and creativity. And much like its author, the novel is an unconventional creative force that often aligns with conventional perspectives.