I just finished reading Marilynne Robinson’s first novel Housekeeping, and I’m stunned. The title is simple enough, but the subject matter is expansive, haunting, and unresolvable. Yes, from the title, you could assume it’s about family, and true, we have the story about two sisters Ruth and Lucille abandoned by their mother Helen. After leaving her two young daughters with their belongings at her mother’s home in the remote town of Fingerbone, Idaho, Helen goes out and drives her car off the cliff.
The book won the Hemingway Foundation/Pen Award for Best First Novel in 1980, and nominated for a Pulitzer that same year.
It’s about sisterhood, how Ruth and Lucille grow up first under the care of their aloof grandmother, then after her death, their two grand aunts, who can’t wait for a younger person to raise these children. So, finally, their mother’s younger sister Sylvie, the estranged daughter of their grandmother, the aunt they have never known, comes back home to Fingerbone to take care of them.
So yes, we can expect some dysfunctional upbringing. But that’s not it. Robinson’s narratives are lyrical, internal, thought-provoking and poignant. Rather than making a social comment on a dysfunctional family, it searches deep into the human condition.
It’s about loneliness, that haunting, inconsolable feeling that can drive one off the cliff of sanity. It’s about survival, how being constrained by such loneliness, one can still go on, striving to find some meaning in blood and kin, facing others during the day and oneself in the deep darkness of the night.
It’s also about personhood, how you might think after such a childhood experience, the two sisters would have clung to each other in an inseparable bond, and yet, one can still escape to another life by squeezing out of the relational cocoon.
And it points to the larger scheme of things, that all are transient, however static we may feel about our situations. No matter how well a housekeeping job we do to keep up an orderly life or fulfill expectations, we cannot ignore our inner chamber. We’re all a diaspora of transient humanity longing for home.
So the transients wandered through Fingerbone like ghosts, terrifying as ghosts are because they were not very different from us… Sylvie was an unredeemed transient, and she was making a transient of me.
I read Gilead years ago. I don’t know why I’ve waited until now to savour Robinson’s other fictional works. Housekeeping is hauntingly true and intellectually satisfying. I know this is a book I need to reread many times in order to grasp all that the author is saying… if I can ever do that, gleaning all that Robinson had meant to say. So many thoughts in just 219 pages.
Many images from other books and movies conjured up in my mind as I was reading: the movies Thelma and Louise, Stand By Me, and Jeannette Walls’s memoir The Glass Castle. And Chapter 10, where Robinson puts the story in the context of Biblical allusions, Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life came to mind. But of course, those are merely images, or interactive memories. What draws my attention page after page is the voice of Robinson’s narrator Ruth, and her heart-wrenching and yet unsentimental storytelling.
~ ~ ~ ~ Ripples
Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson, published by Faber and Faber, London. Third Edition, 2005. 219 pages.
Dances With Words (where there’s a short write-up on Gilead)