After repeated suggestions to read Gilead, Marilynne Robinson’s Pulitzer prize winning novel, I gave in and picked up the book’s prequel, Lila, a 2014 National Book Award Finalist itself, as a starting point. I picked it up and, in a sense, I don’t think I will ever put it down. It did what an excellent book should do: it twisted my heart and in so doing challenged my way of thinking, and my compassion.
“Lila” follows the inward and outward journey of a wandering street girl to whom hardship is just a way of life. She has endured childhood abuse, the shame of a whore house, and the hunger pains and hardness of a life on the run. This background has become more than an experience but an identity. Though Lila’s particular tragedies are hers alone, her questions and struggles strike a universal cord and make her achingly relatable. Which of us has not felt alone in a room of friends, or tried to earn the gifts of love and acceptance even when freely given? Which of us do not doubt our place in the world, or try to self-purge shame and fear? When Lila unexpectedly finds herself in the kind, small town of Gilead with the new comforts of a house, family, and community, she now wrestles with receiving this grace of the present. It seems unfitting to the tainted Lila she sees herself to be.
Lila slowly transforms as she works through an unlikely romance with an aging pastor, who does not view her as colored by her past, and offers her Hosea-like love. Far from stereotypical, rather than sermonizing the reader and wrapping up answers to age-old questions with a bow, this pastor is raw and human, with his own pains, and his own searchings. Together with us, this pair considers troublesome questions that remain unsatisfied with trite answers. Questions such as what do we make of a world of suffering? What would it look like to be made new? How do we love flawed people who can display towards us both good and evil? And how do we live in light of loss? Together they learn to receive grace for themselves, and allow grace to transform their scars into compassion for others.
Marilynne Robinson has given us a book that is raw, humble, honest, and beautiful. Through her I am learning compassion for those I relate to least. Her wisdom challenges me to resist simplifying knotted questions, and, in the not knowings, to live in light of the gifts of grace.
If you have already enjoyed “Lila” as I have, you may also enjoy these finds:
Someone by Alice McDermott
The Thing About December by Donal Ryan
Benediction by Kent Haruf
I Curse the River of Time by Per Petterson