Housekeeping is Marilynne Robinson’s first novel that tells us the story of two sisters who are raised by different relatives. Ruth and Lucille, during their adolescent years, fall under the care of their Aunt Sylvie, their mother’s sister who lives like a transient. She settles in Fingerbone, a fictional Midwestern town that boasts snowy mountains and an imposing lake, to live with the two sisters. The two sisters develop opposite feelings for their eccentric aunt, a woman who never does proper housekeeping. Is the title to be taken literally?
The novel begins with the narrator, Ruth, telling us simple facts about the people they were with when they were growing up. First, it was the grandmother. And then the grand-aunts. And then the aunt. This series of people taking care of the sisters immediately raises these questions about their parents: who are they, what happened, when they left, where they are, and why.
The language of the novel immediately lets us feel an intimacy reserved among family members. There is a lyrical quality to it that doesn’t boast. It sings but it doesn’t belt. It is underwhelming and amazing at the same time, as if the writer has been reserving these sentences for a long time and finally wrote all of them for this novel.
Indeed, it is. In an interview, Robinson revealed that when she was still studying, she was in the habit of writing in metaphoric language to get a feel of how it is to write in the manner of great classic writers. After such a time, she realized that she could continue working with these collected metaphors. She further developed them until it took the form of this novel.
I have often wondered what it seemed like to Sylvie to come back to that house, which would have changed since she left it, shifted and settled. I imagine her with her grips in her bare hands, walking down the middle of the road, which was narrowed by the banks of plowed snow on either side, and narrowed more by the slushy pools that were forming at the foot of each bank. Sylvie always walked with her head down, to one side, with an abstracted and considering expression, as if someone were speaking to her in a soft voice. But she would have glanced up sometimes at the snow, which was the color of heavy clouds, and the sky, which was the color of melting snow, and all the slick black planks and sticks and stumps that erupted as the snow sank away.
You know one of those novels where nothing really happens, that it’s just people talking, or musing, or observing, or housekeeping? This is one of them. The plot is as quiet as the town where it is set. Fingerbone is as much a character as Ruth or Lucille or Aunt Sylvie, what with the many descriptions of little actions that take place under its cold climate. There is nothing spectacular about the town save for the train tragedy the cost the life of the only male character in this novel that was considerably depicted: the sisters’ grandfather.
Their grandfather settled them in this place only to find Fingerbone’s lake a grave for his body. It was never recovered, as if every piece of him melded into the town’s serene landscape. This death opens up the themes of grief and loss. How do the people in this novel deal with loss? Do they find each other’s way of grieving acceptable?
[Then there is Fingerbone, the lake of charts and photographs, which is permeated by sunlight and sustains green life and innumerable fish, and in which one can look down in the shadow of a dock and see stony, earthy bottom, more or less as one sees dry ground. And above that, the lake that rises in the spring and turns the grass dark and coarse as reeds. And above that the water suspended in sunlight, sharp as the breath of an animal, which brims inside this circle of mountains.]
The lake’s unrelenting floods that are flushed through the town are a constant reminder of the people’s loss. Its waters bring all the dirt and mud for the townspeople to clean, and probably a morsel of the grandfather’s bone for her grandmother to pick. But she never does. She copes with grief by not picking any discussion about her husband. Or her daughter, the sisters’ mother. Eventually, the grandmother dies along with all the details of the mother’s abandonment of them.
When Aunt Sylvie arrives at the town, things start to have a little shake up. The domesticity familiar to Ruth and Lucille are threatened by the aunt’s attitude on things. A gentle woman with an independent and quietly willful streak, she has long earned the disapproval of the townspeople, and her taking charge of the girls upsets them.
The sisters have been inseparable before Aunt Sylvie, but the unconventional and too carefree lifestyle of this aunt divides the bond between the two. She takes serious matters, such as the girls’ schooling, very lightly. She could only prepare food straight out of cans. With that alone, what could one expect from the state of their house where lights are barely turned on as if to hide the incompetence that can be easily gleaned from the rotting leaves by the corner, burnt curtains, unwashed dishes inviting vegetation, and newspaper bits here and there?
[I learned an important thing in the orchard that night, which was that if you do not resist the cold, but simply relax and accept it, you no longer feel the cold as discomfort. I felt giddily free and eager, as you do in dreams, when you suddenly find that you can fly, very easily, and wonder why you have never tried it before.]
The headstrong Lucille will find a way out of the house while the shy Ruth will find someone else to hold on to. The sisters’ paths diverge, and the rift between them will be lengthened further by the lake. This lake, plus the train, will help Ruth and Aunt Sylvie escape the town and all the loneliness hovering in its still air. Will Ruth drift from town to town, state to state like her Aunt Sylvie, or will she take charge of her own destination?
It is hard to write about this novel without revealing too much, but one doesn’t read it for the plot. The character portraits are so powerful that one doesn’t mind the plotlessness. One flips through the pages not in the way of a hungry person wolfing down dinner. This is like a mug of warm chocolate during a cool evening; slow sips swirled cheek to cheek, gradual drips at the back of the throat.
[All this is fact. Fact explains nothing. On the contrary, it is fact that requires explanation.]
That’s how you read Marilynne Robinson. She may, from time to time, pose unanswerable questions. It’s a shame that she doesn’t have a massive bibliography, but it is a delight to reread her novels when you have the urge to read contemporary greats that move so slowly and suddenly.
Dates Read: January 29 to February 1, 2012
No. of Pages: 219
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars