Lila is the third novel in a trilogy of books that began with Gilead and was followed by Home. The previous two novels were lavished with awards, nominations and appeared in best of lists in their respective years. So it’s probably no surprise that Lila has also been honored with a nomination on the National Book Award shortlist. It’s also clear that Robinson is much loved by critics, if the laudatory reviews are anything to go by. I’d never heard of her, but given the subject matter of her books, set in hard-scrabble Iowa with a Calvinistic bent, I can see why her name might not be familiar to anyone outside of the States.

Lila acts as a prequel to Gilead, so it can be read without reference to the other two novels. That said, if you’ve read Gilead (I haven’t) you’ll know that Lila was Reverend John Ames’ second wife. Ames’ first wife and child died tragically forty years previously, and Ames is resigned to dying alone when Lila literally stumbles into his life. This book, then, fleshes out Lila’s character, providing us insight into her early life while exploring her relationship with the Reverend and the people of Gilead.

The first time we meet Lila, she is four years old, has no name and seems to spend her day under a table in a shack somewhere in Midwest America. A woman named Dolly feels pity for the little girl dressed in rags and steals her away. What follows is a hard, at times miserable existence, that involves joining up with a ‘family’ of drifters who work on farms and sleep out in the fields and finally ending up in a whorehouse where Lila cooks and cleans rather than service the patrons.  Along the way, Dolly makes sure that Lila learns her number and letters while protecting the both of them with a wicked knife.

Walking into Gilead, on her way to California (or anywhere that’s no a whorehouse in St Louis) Lila reflects on the following:

She asked Doll one time, What are we, then? and Doll had said, We’re just folks. But Lila could tell that wasn’t true, that there was more to it anyway. Why this shame? No one had ever really explained it to her, and she could never explain it to herself. Thou wast cast out in the open field. All right. That was none of her doing. She had worked herself tough and ugly for nothing more than to stay alive, and she wasn’t so sure she saw the point of that. Why did she care what people thought. She was nothing to them, they were nothing to her. There really was not a soul on earth she should be worrying about at all. Especially not that preacher. Doll would be glad to see her no matter what. Ugly old Doll. Who had said to her, Live. Not once, but every time she washed and mended for her, mothered her as if she were a child someone could want. Lila remembered more than she ever let on.

And in those thoughts exists the paradox that haunts Lila.  She knows, intellectually, that the struggles she faced were not of her making.  That if not for Doll she would have died under that table.  And yet she can’t wipe away the shame that stains her soul.  In meeting and falling in love with Revered Ames’ Lila will attempt to answer and resolve that paradox by asking a man of scripture why God would allow neglect and abandonment and suffering to exist for those who don’t deserve it.  It’s an old canard – why do bad things happen to good people – but some of the best moments in the novel are when Ames’ struggles to answer the question in the context of his own beliefs.

Because Lila deals with these issues for the length of the novel, and because Robinson refuses to offer up easy answers, I found Lila to be tough going.  I could appreciate the beautiful writing, I can acknowledge the deft and skillful way that Robinson deals with a number of complicated issues about existence and meaning and suffering, but at the end of it all I found myself detached from Lila and her experience.  I stopped caring.  Which is harsh but true.

Throughout the reading experience my mind kept going back to Flannery O’Connor and her collection of short fiction, A Good Man Is Hard To Find.  Thanks to Dave Hoskin, I read this powerful book for an earlier episode of Shooting The Poo.  O’Connor, who was born in Georgia but has connection to Iowa through its Writer’s Workshop (which Robinson is also an alumni of).  While I don’t have the academic nous to adequately compare the two writers, I found O’Connor’s treatment of similar issues such as poverty and neglect, told through a Catholic, rather than Calvinist, lens to be the more engaging and relevant.  I know it’s not fair to compare short fiction to a novel, but O’Connor had the ability to punch you in the gut and make you wince as terrible things happen to her characters while asking the same questions as to why God has allowed this to happen.

In comparison, Robinson’s novel is repetitive, lacking that O’Connor gut punch.  Lila constantly doubts herself, doubts her love for the Reverend, doubts his love for her (though she’s never really given reason to do so, even after she provides him with some details of her ‘sordid’ background) and doubts whether she can ever be free of the stain of her past:

I am baptized, I am married, I am Lila Dahl, and Lila Ames. I don’t know what else I should want. Except for the shame to be gone, and it ain’t. I’m in a strange house with a man who can’t even figure out how to talk to me. Anything I could do around here has been done already. If I say something ignorant or crazy he’ll start thinking, Old men can be foolish. He’s thought it already. He’ll ask me to leave and no one will blame him. I won’t blame him. Marriage was supposed to put an end to these miseries. But now whatever happens everybody will know. She saw him standing in the parlor with his beautiful old head bowed down on his beautiful old chest. She thought, He sure better be praying. And then she thought, Praying looks just like grief. Like shame. Like regret.

Aside from all this self-doubt having a whiff of the Fallen Woman narrative, the repetition meant that I never felt like the novel was progressing thematically.  And I believe that all this self-doubt robs Lila of an interesting narrative choice.  Does she stay in Gilead as a woman who has come to terms with her past, who has found redemption in her faith, in her husband and in her child, or does she leave Gilead because, unfortunately, it’s all too much to bear?  The ending of the novel implies that she has made a choice, that’s she decided to stay.  But her reasoning is less about her finding peace and more about her newborn child.

Having said that this is a layered and times breathtakingly beautiful novel.  If you’ve read Gilead and Home I’m sure the book and Lila’s journey will have resonance.  Unfortunately, I can’t come along for the ride.