Our experience of reading will always differ from each other; even at different times in our own lives books will ‘speak’ to us in different ways. Our reading is informed by our experiences, our circumstances, our education. There is a complexity to my own circumstances in reading Lila (which is difficult to outline as it involves aspects of myself that, because they are so close at this time, are difficult to see with any clarity) that draws me to the abandoned child, who sits at the beginning of the novel, and whom we encounter in various forms throughout.
In the essay, ‘When I was a Child’, Robinson writes about the literary references she makes in her first novel, Housekeeping, demonstrating how they accord with the knowledge and experiences of Ruth, the young narrator. Similarly, Robinson’s narrator, Lila, describes the world through the lens of both her experiences (her memories), her observations of the world, what she has been taught (which has been limited through her circumstances), and, importantly, what she is reading: the Bible.
Impulsively taking a pew Bible from the Church in Gilead she attends sporadically, Lila first reads Ezekiel. Lila becomes fixated by certain passages, laboriously writing them out ten to fifteen times, on her tablet. Ezekiel 16 particularly stands out for her, and as the novel and her memories unfold, we come to understand why these verses speak to her so powerfully:
(Ezekiel is to prophesy) “You are to say: This is what the Lord God says to Jerusalem: Your origin and your birth were in the land of the Canaanites. Your father was an Amorite and your mother a Hittite. As for your birth, your umbilical cord wasn’t cut on the day you were born, and you weren’t washed clean with water. You were not rubbed with salt or wrapped in clothes. No one cared enough about you to do even one of these things out of compassion for you. But you were thrown out into the open field because you were despised on the day you were born.
“I passed by you and saw you lying in your blood, and I said to you as you lay in your blood: Live! Yes, I said to you as you lay in your blood: Live!” (Ezekiel 16:3-6, HCSB)
This image and idea of the abandoned child is not merely a trope in this novel (you can read more about this in this New York Times article by Robinson), it is woven in complex ways throughout, and this biblical passage becomes a focus for Lila to not only reflect on the events of her life, but also as a way of coming to understand God, as this passage resonates with her experience: abandonment and compassion.
If we trace this image throughout the novel we see the ways in which it is used both to expand upon the “very deep mystery of God’s grace”, and the ways in which that is expressed through humanity, who bear his image.
As I’ve reflected on this over the last week, I have encountered the intricate strands of Robinson’s prose as woven into the fabric of the world in which I live. I have been reminded of how the fear of abandonment, of being lost, is a pervasive fear, which is utilised in popular culture, particularly in films for or about children (Toy Story, Madagascar, Rio, et al.), and which has come from fairy tales like ‘Hansel and Gretel’ and ‘Snow White’. My mind has returned again and again to Gilbert Meilaendar’s ethic, where love says, “’It is good that you exist.’” I have encountered acts of compassion, where a father, leaving the care of his baby to a stranger (me), leapt into the ocean to rescue two children from being swept across rocks in a rip. And I have been reminded, through reading the Crucifixion narrative with my children, that Jesus himself cries out, “My God! My God! Why have you forsaken me?”