I don’t read many living authors, certainly not as a percentage of my overall reading, but I think there is only one whom I consider to be a ‘great’ – and that is Marilynne Robinson. This opinion was formed on the basis of her novel Gilead, and has been strengthened by reading her first novel, Housekeeping (1980). I don’t think it is as good as Gilead, but it is still a strikingly beautiful example of how astonishingly an author can use prose. The opening lines are surprisingly stark, given the writing that follows:
My name is Ruth. I grew up with my younger sister, Lucille, under the care of my grandmother, Mrs. Sylvia Forster, and when she died, of her sisters-in-law, Misses Lily and Nona Foster, and when they fled, of her daughter, Mrs. Sylvia Fisher.
This opening, hovering between comedy and tragedy without any indication which side the balance might fall, is an indication of the absence of men in Housekeeping. Indeed, the only man who has stuck around makes a dramatic exit in the first pages of the novel – in a manner which reminded me of the opening to Ian McEwan’s Enduring Love, although Robinson’s came first. The man is Ruth’s grandfather; the exit is on a train in the town where they live; the train derails from a bridge, and sinks through the ice to the depths of an enormous lake, drowning everyone on board and hiding their bodies from rescue.
Even this dramatic event, which reverberates slowly through the whole novel – (The derailment, though too bizarre in itself to have either significance or consequence, was nevertheless the most striking event in the town’s history, and as such was prized. Those who were in any way associated with it were somewhat revered.) – is depicted almost quietly. There were no proper witnesses, and Robinson does not take on the mantle of omniscience – instead, this tragic and would-be grandiose event is presented through veils of supposition and uncertainty. I don’t think Robinson could be over-the-top if she tried. See how calmly she depicts the aftermath, when describing the widow with her daughters (later to be Ruth’s mother and aunts):
She had always known a thousand ways to circle them all around with what must have seemed like grace. She knew a thousand songs. Her bread was tender and her jelly was tart, and on rainy days she made cookies and applesauce. In the summer she kept roses in a vase on the piano, huge, pungent roses, and when the blooms ripened and the petals fell, she putt hem in a tall Chinese jar, with cloves and thyme and sticks of cinnamon. Her children slept on starched sheets under layers of quilts, and in the morning her curtains filled with light the way sails fill with wind. Of course they pressed her and touched her as if she had just returned after an absence. Not because they were afraid she would vanish as their father had done, but because his sudden vanishing had made them aware of her.
Occasionally there are moments of plot in Housekeeping, and they can be quite significant moments, but nobody could call this a plot-driven novel. No, it is certainly character-driven – and the central character is Ruth. Robinson doesn’t capture her voice in quite the mesmeric way she captures John Ames’s in Gilead – but that is a feat I consider unmatched by any recent novelist, so she shouldn’t be judged too harshly on that. We see the bleak, plain experience of young life through Ruth’s eyes – as her sister Lucille grows apart from her, as she looks back on their mother’s abandonment of them, as she tries to understand her increasingly eccentric aunt. But mostly as she watches the world pass, and attempts to find her place in it. There are certainly humorous elements to her observations, but perhaps the dominant note is poignancy: ‘That most moments were substantially the same did not detract at all from the possibility that the next moment might be utterly different.’
I am usually left unaffected by depictions of place and landscape in literature (it’s probably the reason that I loathed Return of the Native, for instance) but even I found Robinson’s depiction of Fingerbone – the atmospherically named small town – entirely consuming and impressive. Whoever designed the cover for this edition did an exceptional job. Maybe it’s cold, vast places which affect me, since I felt the same about Stef Penney’s The Tenderness of Wolves.
Fingerbone was never an impressive town. It was chastened by an outsized landscape and extravagant weather, and chastened again by an awareness that the whole of human history had occurred elsewhere.
At book group, someone mentioned that Housekeeping couldn’t have been set in the UK – we just don’t have that sort of isolated vastness anywhere. Having the enormous lake, holding unfindable bodies and untraceable secrets, and the equally enormous railway bridge running over it – it is such a clever way to create a dramatic, memorable landscape, and define the town in an unsettling manner. A trainline should signify connection and communication, but here it just seems to connote distance and almost terrifying grandeur. And the bridge comes back into play at the end of the novel, encircling the narrative with the same all-encompassing dominance that the bridge and lake have over Fingerbone.
I’ve not mentioned much of the plot, because (as I said) it is pretty immaterial to the chief pleasure of reading Housekeeping. The novel is really like a very long poem. It meanders, in the best possible way; it is impossible to speed-read, or at least it would be an exercise in wasted time to do so. Instead, one ought to wallow and wander through Robinson’s prose. Traditional storytelling has no place in Housekeeping – instead, a patchwork of moments is sewn together, creating a fabric which is unusual but beautifully captivating.