Gilead gave us the story of Reverend John Ames coming to the end of his life and writing a letter to his young son who he will not see grow up. Lila gives us the backstory to this and fleshes out Reverend Ames’ enigmatic and taciturn young wife.
Lila arrives in Gilead by chance. Finding an empty shack she decides to make it her temporary home . She meets the Reverend Ames and so their strange courtship begins. The novel is told in the third person but uses a stream of consciousness style , gradually we learn Lila’s history.
Born into an abusive family, Lila is rescued by the piratical figure of Doll. She knows nay her first name and remembers nothing of her origins not even her surname. Lila and Doll live the itinerant lives of sharecroppers. After the Wall Street Crash and into the dustbowl years this is an increasingly hand to mouth existence.This is vividly described and although life is tough Lila does know some true moments of happiness.
One evening, Doane, the leader of their little band, takes them to a camp revival meeting :
‘Families were pitching tents all over in the woods around the clearing There were campfires, and people drifting from one to another, laughing and talking, shaking hands and slapping backs, sharing their pickle and crackers and taffy, sometimes singing together a little, sincere there were banjos and mouth organs and a guitar and a fiddle scattered here ad there amongst the tents. Some of the women and girls were wearing nice dresses. Children in little packs stormed around from one place to another just burning off the excitement of it all.’
Doll and Lila can’t escape the past forever however and Lila is pushed into ever more desperate circumstances.
There is a timeless quality to the storytelling here. There are gentle references to historical events that orientate us in time but for the most part we are left to focus on the intensity of the emotions.
A survivor of abuse, Lila has difficulty in trusting others. She finds it difficult to commit to people or even to stay in one place for a time.
Ames’ courtship of and marriage to Lila causes some bewilderment amongst his friends and congregation , particularly with Reverend Boughton whose own troubled family story was told in the Orange Prize winning Home. On proposing to her, Ames outlines the sort of life he foresees for them :
‘ “A person like you might not want the kind of life she would have with me. People around. Its not a very private life compared to what you’re used to. You’re sort of expected to be agreeable”
‘I can’t do that”
He nodded. ” They’re not going to fire me whatever happens. I’ll Have my good house, till they carry me out of it.”
“I can take care of myself” ‘
Together, however, Ames and Lila reach an understanding. The deeply religious and Calvinist Ames begins to see life more humanely whilst Lila, brought up by Doll to fear and avoid all religion, begins to see that finding spirituality can help to provide her with a sense of identity and come to terms with her past.
This is a wonderful novel, heart-breaking and heart-warming at the same time, and surely a contender for another major literary prize.
Lila is published by Virago on 9th October. Thank you to Susan de Soissons and Virago for the review copy.