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Originally published Sunday, October 5, 2014 at 6:16 AM

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‘Lila’: a journey toward love and hope in a small Iowa town

With “Lila,” Iowa novelist Marilynne Robinson completes the masterful trilogy she began in “Gilead,” as she tells the story of a troubled young woman who finds love and a kind of peace with a small-town Iowa minister.

Special to The Seattle Times


“Lila: a Novel”

by Marilynne Robinson

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 272 pp., $26

“Lila,” Marilynne Robinson’s remarkable new novel, stands alone as a book to read and even read again. It’s both a multilayered love story and a perceptive look at how early deprivation causes lasting damage.

But the book is best set within the context of its powerful predecessor, “Gilead,” the 2005 Pulitzer Prize winner that established its characters and setting. There, we were introduced to a mid-20th century Iowa town through the gentle soul of the ailing Rev. John Ames. There, we first learned about the May-December marriage that produced the young son Ames addresses in “Gilead.”

Seeing her from Ames’ viewpoint, his young wife, Lila, remains tantalizingly beyond our reach. Her background is vague, and her thoughts are revealed mostly through “eyes so serious I was embarrassed to be preaching to her,” Ames recalls in “Gilead.”

A stranger who had taken refuge from the rain in his church, Lila Dahl is no lost lamb, a favored biblical metaphor. Rather, her “wild, scared heart” is contained within a tough shell. Ames immediately recognizes her ability to cut through the cobwebs of his complacency.

That their union will become the talk of the church and the joyful surprise of his old age — these things we deduce from the pastor’s own telling of the tale. But it takes the new book to delve behind the young woman’s fierce expression and explain why her questions about sin and God’s grace are not idle ones. From the start, this unchurched but curious newcomer demands to know what faith has to do with getting through the day.

“It was about the meaning of existence, he said. All right. She knew a little about existence,” Lila reflects, pecking at the message Ames has hung on her despair. “The evening and the morning, the sleeping and the waking. Hunger and loneliness and weariness and still wanting more of it. Existence. Why do I bother?”

Depression curls around the edges of Lila’s thoughts, its roots found in her abandonment and rootlessness as a child. Lila’s only protector was a woman known as Doll whose only tangible legacy to the girl is the knife she suspects that Doll used to dispatch Lila’s father, punishing him for his abuse and neglect.

After Doll disappears, Lila carries this weapon to a house of prostitution in St. Louis, where her fantasies about raising a patron’s baby offer acute psychological insight into the stirring of hope in seemingly hopeless situations. She still has the knife when she reaches Gilead and finds shelter in an empty cabin on the edge of town.

For Ames, the fear is not that Lila will harm him, but that she will vanish. As a tender of souls, he understands that a drifter resists being tethered to one place. And yet, he opens his heart.

As in “Home,” the other novel that fills out the Gilead triad, Robinson borrows tropes from the Christian canon to tell a compelling tale. In “Home,” she put the parable of the prodigal son in modern dress; in “Lila,” we encounter the woman at the well, the outcast Jesus treats as one of his own.

Even Lila, who’s hardly given to believing in miracles, notes her inexplicable change of fortune, from being a woman whose troubled past “was just written all over her” to one who “found her way to the one man on Earth who didn’t see it.” She is a survivor; he is a saint, and Robinson is a novelist of the first order.

Ellen Heltzel is a Portland writer and critic.

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