More balm in Gilead as Robinson (When I Was a Child I Read Books, 2012, etc.) returns to familiar ground to continue the saga of John Ames and his neighbors.
Ames, Robinson’s readers will know, is a minister in the hamlet of Gilead, a quiet place in a quiet corner of a quiet Midwestern state. Deceptively quiet, we should say, for Robinson, ever the Calvinist (albeit a gentle and compassionate one), is a master at plumbing the roiling depths below calm surfaces. In this installment, she turns to the title character, Ames’ wife, who has figured mostly just in passing in Gilead (2004) and Home (2008). How, after all, did this young outsider wind up in a place so far away from the orbits of most people? What secrets does she bear? It turns out that Lila has quite a story to tell, one of abandonment, want, struggle and redemption—classic Robinson territory, in other words. Robinson provides Lila with enough back story to fuel several other books, her prose richly suggestive and poetic as she evokes a bygone time before “everyone…started getting poorer and the wind turned dirty” that merges into a more recent past that seems no less bleak, when Lila, having subsisted on cattails and pine sap, wanders into Gilead just to look at the houses and gardens: “The loneliness was bad, but it was better than anything else she could think of.” She never leaves, of course, becoming part of the landscape—and, as readers will learn, essential to the gradually unfolding story of Gilead. And in Robinson’s hands, that small town, with its heat and cicadas, its tree toads and morning dew, becomes as real as Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County, just as charged with meaning if a touch less ominous, Lila’s talismanic knife notwithstanding.
Fans of Robinson will wish the book were longer—and will surely look forward to the next.