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Andrew Tate

Marilynne Robinson
Virago, 261pp

'Home is a place I have never been.' This stark, sad confession was uttered by the Marxist philosopher Ernst Bloch in a work originally entitled Dreams of a Better Life. Both Bloch's lament for an unknown place of belonging and the sentiment of his visionary title might, however, have been spoken by the eponymous, reticent heroine of Marilynne Robinson's Lila. 'What a body might hope just ain't in the way of things, most of the time,' she reflects, after years of loss, neglect and near starvation drifting across Depression-era USA. This rough existence is tempered by Doll, the woman who either saved her from careless mistreatment as a child or, perhaps, simply 'carried her away from whatever she could have had of place and name and kin'. The surrogate mother and daughter join a group of impoverished drifters 'who never thought the Almighty would have the least bit of interest in them' in a narrative that echoes John Steinbeck's 1930s tales of exploited itinerant workers. They follow a man named Doane, a reluctant, non-believing Moses, who 'never did anything with what he had except to keep things together as well as he could'. After years of travelling with this band of unwanted people 'who just lived and died as well as they could manage' - and following traumatic separation from her ambiguous protector - Lila, now perhaps in her late 20s, arrives in a rural town in the US heartland and hesitantly wanders into a church where she encounters its minister, an ageing widower with his own, rather different story of grief.

Lila is the third novel set in Robinson's Gilead, a fictional (but vividly authentic) Iowan town; its name is borrowed from Genesis and means 'hill of testimony' or 'place of witness'. The biblical allusion is a clue to the kind of narrative that Robinson has patiently constructed during the last decade and more. The novelist, like Lila's husband, the ailing congregational minister John Ames, bears witness to the melancholy and miracle of everyday life in the Midwestern states. The three novels share a focus on intimate family relationships: father and son; father and daughter; mother and daughter; and, finally, husband and wife. And, though Lila is rooted in the specifics of place - 'that smell of damp earth and bruised grass' - it also has a peculiarly transcendental feel. Dates are rarely, if ever, mentioned; Lila doesn't seem to know her own age and is frequently hazy about the precise day of the week let alone which year she arrives in Ames' church. In fact, the sequence reads like an extended, multi-plot version of the parable of the prodigal son. In Gilead (2004), Ames knows precisely which character in the parable he has been cast in:as the 'good son [. . .] the one who never left his father's house,' he notes drily, 'I am one of those righteous for whom the rejoicing in heaven will be comparatively restrained'. Lila is no prodigal - she had no choice about her separation from home - but, much like Ames confesses to feeling 'homesick for a place [he] never left' Lila yearns for a return to a place that she has never known. The precise location of this impossible home may or may not be the Midwest town in which she finds herself welcomed. Gilead is an ordinary, barely noticed and little-loved place ('it seems rather Christlike to be as unadorned as this place is,' observes Ames in a previous instalment), though its history is intertwined with the radicalism of the anti-slavery movement, embodied by Ames' ferocious grandfather, an abolitionist-preacher outraged by Christian complacency. Robinson is a quietly political novelist, and this element of her writing is muted by its investment in the mysteries of friendship and solitude. Lila is a victim of another consuming injustice in the land of the free: the kind of grinding poverty that steals everything that is precious from its casualties, including the capacity to care about the future.

Few contemporary writers treat the phenomenon of an interior life more seriously than Marilynne Robinson. In Absence of Mind (2010), she defends 'the great paradox and privilege of human selfhood', a paradox explored in Lila. Robinson must be one of the world's most theologically- literate living writers: she takes the twin but competing legacies of American Puritanism and Romanticism seriously; both sin and a capacity for joy figure in her fiction and critical writing. Lila is full of strange, moving acts of devotion. Ames is both deep-rooted and a dreamer: he is a man for whom everything is prayer ('Family is a prayer. Wife is a prayer. Marriage is a prayer'). Lila's gradual spiritual awakening is tempered by scepticism: 'The best things that happen I'd never have thought to pray for [. . .] The worst things just come like the weather. You do what you can'. In one striking passage, Lila seeks to remove her recent, unenthusiastic baptism by bathing in the river. On hearing Calvinist church teaching, she fears that she will be separated from those lost souls who happen to be the only people that she loved.

Amy Hungerford suggests that Robinson's novels 'imagine belief made capacious, and aim to show us behaviour within the life of belief that can heal both family and Republic'. I read the Gilead sequence as embodying a compassionate poetics of reconciliation. The meeting between drifter and home-dweller, isolated and lonely in their own way, seems to generate a kind of epiphany in which the generosity of God's economy is understood. Lila, lost no more, intuits a supressed hope: eternity might have 'more of every kind of room in it than this world'.