Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Living the Good Life: Marilynne Robinson's Trilogy Set in Small-Town Christian America Is More Than Great Fiction-It Is a Political and Ethical Project

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Living the Good Life: Marilynne Robinson's Trilogy Set in Small-Town Christian America Is More Than Great Fiction-It Is a Political and Ethical Project

Article excerpt



Marilynne Robinson

Virago, 261pp. 16.99 [pounds sterling]

One of the most important marks of a serious novelist is the capacity to create a diversity of consistent voices, voices we can hear as having an integrity of their own. Bad novelists ventriloquise, good novelists allow the speakers they create to be other than their creator. Marilynne Robinson's three interrelated novels (Gilead, Home and Lila) about a small Iowa town in the 1940s and 1950s all exhibit in exemplary ways this quality of allowing voices to be themselves. The first of the books is a first-person narration and reflection by the ageing pastor John Ames, writing down the thoughts he wants to leave for his seven-year-old son. The second is a third-person story told from the perspective of Glory, daughter of Ames's clerical colleague Robert Boughton.

This third novel in the sequence is, in many ways, the most adventurous of all. It is the story of Ames's young wife, Lila, an enigmatic presence in the earlier books, both unsettling and reconciling, and it is cast as a third-person narration, carefully and strictly related from Lila's own perspective. There is nothing in the text that exceeds her character's vocabulary and frame of reference, and, as Lila's background is revealed to be one of unbroken deprivation, violence and insecurity, finding and sustaining such a voice is quite a challenge.

She is largely uneducated; she does not know who her parents were or even what her original name was, and she has never known anything but a nomadic life, wandering the back roads of the Midwest with other drifters who are struggling to make some kind of living in the bleakest years of the Depression. She is taught a comprehensive suspicion of the lives of "settled" people in the farms and townships, but also learns a passionate loyalty to those who have accompanied her--especially to a woman named Doll, who has, in effect, abducted her from the ramshackle household where she was boarded out as a child and given her what emotional and practical security she has experienced.

The novel is about how this almost feral character ends up in quiet Gilead and marries its Congregationalist minister. Bit by bit, Lila's history unfolds for us as she works hard not to lose the memory of what she has been and who has mattered to her. Haunting the narrative are texts from the prophetic book of Ezekiel in the Bible she has "borrowed" from the church. Lila's attention is absorbed almost obsessively by a passage in chapter 16 describing God's covenant with Israel as the rescue of an abandoned newborn child, still soaked in blood, to whom God says simply, "Live!" And Lila's concern throughout the novel is who has spoken that word to her in various contexts and what it means.

But her laborious biblical reading produces more unexpected moments of recognition. Ezekiel's vision of the heavenly chariot in which God rides, supported by four "living creatures"--a passage immensely important in the history of Jewish and Christian mysticism, and whose chaotic vocabulary and imagery still induce a frisson --prompts Lila to reflect on "the wildness of things" which she is tempted to forget as she is welcomed into Gilead's placid religious consolations. The feverish language of the prophet, boiling over with incomprehensible apparitions, and qualifications or withdrawals of images ("as it were glowing metal"; "the likeness of a man ... every one had four faces"), makes unexpected sense. "She had the likeness of a woman, with hands but no face at all, since she never let herself see it. She had the likeness of a life, because she was all alone in it."

To Lila, the many-faced creatures of the vision "made as much sense as anything else. No sense at all. If you think about a human face, it can be something you don't want to look at ... It can be something you want to hide, because it pretty well shows where you've been and what you can expect. …

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