Housekeeping – Marilynne Robinson

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.

24 thoughts on “Housekeeping – Marilynne Robinson

  • March 26, 2013 at 12:54 am
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    One of my favorites. I read this after I saw the
    movie. Which is also one long poem – highly .recommend it

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    • March 30, 2013 at 12:00 am
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      My thought process:
      1) There's a film! I had no idea!
      2) Oh… not available on Region 2 DVD :(

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  • March 26, 2013 at 1:57 am
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    This sounds like another wonderful author that I have completely missed – let me see what the library has.

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    • March 30, 2013 at 12:01 am
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      If they've got Gilead, grab it! She's only written three novels so far.

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  • March 26, 2013 at 10:12 am
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    It's always a pleasure to read your thoughts on favourite authors, especially those I haven't yet discovered, as you always manage to convey a sense of the experience as well as their style. I had no idea that it had a train derailment/loss in the lake at its core but I can see how Robinson might use that metaphor in so many ways.

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    • March 30, 2013 at 12:02 am
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      Thank you, Alex, that's a lovely comment! I do try to get the experience across, and I'm really pleased that you think I have :)

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    • March 30, 2013 at 12:02 am
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      I definitely preferred Gilead too – and soon I'll read Home, soon!

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  • March 26, 2013 at 1:36 pm
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    Lovely review, Simon. I've read this, but not Gilead. Or at least, I tried it but couldn't get on with it. I probably picked it up at the wrong moment (this accounts for a lot of my failures – I do have quite specific moods for books these days, which makes me wonder how I ever got through that Ph.D…..). One day, I'll try it again.

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    • March 30, 2013 at 12:03 am
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      Thanks Victoria!
      I would definitely have to be in the right mood for any Robinson book, I think – so that could explain a failure of connection with Gilead.

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  • March 26, 2013 at 3:21 pm
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    Housekeeping is the only work of Robinson's that I've read, but it left me with an impression of her as an author who carefully perfects every word she writes.

    I also had an "aha" moment reading your review when you say that you're usually unaffected by descriptions of place and landscape. I realized that I feel exactly the same way, and just hadn't acknowledged it in so many words!

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    • March 30, 2013 at 12:04 am
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      I think she must perfectly craft – I would be fascinated to read the drafts.

      And so glad that I'm not alone with landscape-reading! I always feel like such a pariah when I admit it…

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  • March 26, 2013 at 3:42 pm
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    Gosh, Simon, your first statement about not reading many living authors made me think – because I don't either and I find myself wondering why and whether I just am skeptical about the current state of literature or just prefer books from a certain period or am simply prejudiced against the living! However, if I *was* reading living authors I would certainly be tracking down this because it sounds wonderfully atmospheric!

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    • March 28, 2013 at 10:25 pm
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      "…prejudiced against the living"…
      : )
      Another minority group to worry about?

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    • March 30, 2013 at 12:04 am
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      Marilynne Robinson is definitely a very honourable exception, Karen! I think you'd like her – she has qualities in common with, say, Elizabeth Bowen, I think.

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  • March 26, 2013 at 8:52 pm
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    Hi,

    I read this one recently and didn't like it. I totally understand your review, though and my brain understand that you enjoyed it that much: it is a good book.
    It didn't work for me: I felt smothered by the wet, foggy and cold atmosphere. I was bored by the descriptions of the walks in the woods, by the lake, of the house. I found it terribly creepy, I felt I'll at ease.

    Emma.

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    • March 30, 2013 at 12:06 am
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      I could definitely see how it wouldn't appeal to everyone – and I think I might not have liked it, in a different mood. But there are enough great books out there for you to shelve Marilynne Robinson, for now at least :)

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  • March 27, 2013 at 12:15 am
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    I will try someday to read Gilad, but I was underwhelmed by Housekeeping. Maybe it was a case of too much character and not enough plot for me. I have heard Marianne Robinson speak, however, on a podcast, and I love her. She is so articulate and interesting.

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    • March 30, 2013 at 12:07 am
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      She is a fantastic, funny, warm speaker!
      If those were the reasons you didn't enjoy Housekeeping, then I think you'd definitely fare better with Gilead. Let me know if you do try it!

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  • March 27, 2013 at 2:48 am
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    I love this book. I thought for years (decades even) that she was the literary equivalent of a one hit wonder but then discovered her second flowering with Gilead and Home. A truly great author, sentence by exquisite sentence.

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    • March 30, 2013 at 12:08 am
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      I only came across her when she was two books in, and only read her when all three were out – but it would have been so frustrating to read this and have to wait 25 years!

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  • March 28, 2013 at 11:29 am
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    Thanks for mentioning Gilead again, Simon. I've been meaning to read it ever since I read your blog post about it, in which you quoted this sentence: "Why do I love the thought of you old? That first twinge of arthritis in your knee is a thing I imagine with all the tenderness I felt when you showed me your loose tooth." As one feeling that first twinge, I nodded in agreement.

    Is that just another good intention of mine? Possibly. Perhaps the sentence was enough! But it's good to be reminded of where it came from.

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    • March 30, 2013 at 12:09 am
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      And thank you for reminding me of that lovely line, which I'd forgotten! I do hope your good intention comes to fruition.

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  • March 30, 2013 at 4:04 pm
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    A fine review of one of my favorite books. Robinson lived in Sandpoint, Idaho, which is on Lake Pend d'Orielle. The railroad bridge is much as she described it, though no longer used and hosting a large heron's nest when last I was in Sandpoint. She captures the setting well, with the mountains in the distance, the evergreens, and little development around the enormous lake, which is so large and deep the US Navy used it to train submariners during World War II.

    You remind me it's time to re-read Housekeeping.

    Reply

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