Marilynne Robinson's book 'Home' is in my Orange Prize Challenge list, but we have been reading this one, 'Housekeeping' for my book group this month. It was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction (I have unintentionally read two Pulitzer winners so far this year The Bridge of San Luis Rey and American Pastoral, and I recently came across this blog, a reading challenge to read all the winners) and as you can see from the front cover image it is also considered by The Observer to be "one of the 100 Greatest Novels of all time". I like to read these kind of lists but tend to take them with a pinch of salt. They always contain the same classics and then a selection of more 'modern' novels depending on the bent of the publication involved.
Now I was quite surprised to find that I have read this book before. Surprised because I can't believe it didn't leave more of in impact ... well it did obviously, but the title is so nondescript that maybe that was why I didn't remember straight away. As soon as I got to the description of the grandfather's train going off the bridge I remembered everything. What I will start by saying is that it really did bear a second reading, and I enjoyed it very much, relishing the fact that I remembered the course of the story and being able to focus more on the writing, which is so so wonderful (there might be loads of quotes in this review, be warned).
'Housekeeping' is the story of Ruth and Lucille, told by Ruth, of how they are abandoned by their mother on their grandmother's porch and then cared for first by their grandmother and then two elderly maiden aunts, Lily and Nona, until they send for their aunt Sylvie who takes up a kind of residence in their lop-sided family home, and 'keeps house' in her own very unique way. There is very little story as such. The girls grow up, but the place they live, Fingerbone, is one of those isolated, untouched communities that seems to be in a time warp. Described thus after the flood:
"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. That flood flattened scores of headstones. More disturbing, the graves sank when the water receded, so that they looked a little like hollow sides or empty bellies. And then the library was flooded to a depth of three shelves, creating vast gaps in the Dewey decimal system. The losses in hooked and braided rugs and needlepoint footstools will never be reckoned." (p.62)
The book is so full of images and allegories: the unfathomable lake that swallowed up their grandfather; the cold and the wet and the mud; the bridge and the trains that rumble back and forth across it; the dogs in their road who know that they don't really belong; school being the place where normality is acquired. The story meanders around giving smatterings of childhood memories mixed up with Ruth's childlike unquestioning acceptance of everything that happens to them, never really expecting to understand the world. Then the girls, already viewed as outsiders, start to absent themselves from community expectations:
"My cold, visceral dread of school I had learned to ignore. It was a discomfort that was not to be relieved, like an itch in an amputated limb. I had won the attendance prize for my grade in the last year of my grandmother's life, and it might never have occurred to me not to go to school if it had not occurred to Lucille." (p.77)
So with the quiet acquiescence of Sylvie the girls spend much of their time around the lake, mostly just wandering, and so begins the spiral that eventually draws the attention of the local do-gooders. Sylvie is strangely vacant, always seeming to be elsewhere or expecting to leave at any moment. She had been living a somewhat transient lifestyle since leaving home and marrying very young, and the girls are constantly fearing that she will up and leave them, so they spend a lot of time just watching her, concerned, all the while she is totally unconcerned about anything. As time passes Lucille growing up becomes more interested in 'fitting in' and gradually becomes more aware of how their life and situation is viewed by the locals, until eventually she leaves rather abruptly and goes to live with a teacher.
Ruth is then left alone with Sylvie and the pair are drawn closer, with Ruth coming to imagine that she is a replacement for her lost mother. Then there is this wonderful chapter where they go off on an 'adventure' together. Sylvie takes her in a stolen boat across the lake to a little hidden valley populated by ghost children (which seems to fascinate rather than frighten).
"I walked after Sylvie down the shore, all at peace, and at ease, and I thought, We are the same. She could as well be my mother. I crouched and slept in her very shape like an unborn child." (p.145)
Describing the valley:
"The mountains that walled the valley were too close, the one upon the other. The rampages of glaciers in their eons of slow violence had left the landscape in a great disorder." (p.150)
On finding herself alone Ruth digs in the ruins of a collapsed cellar:
"So I worked till my hair was damp and my hands galled and tender, with what must have seemed wild hope, or desperation. I began to imagine myself a rescuer. Children had been sleeping in this fallen house. Soon I would uncover the rain-stiffened hems of their nightshirts, and their small bone feet, the toes all fallen like petals." (p. 158)
Ruth's thoughts as they are in the boat returning across the lake in the dark:
"I hate waiting. If I had one particular complaint, it was that my life seemed composed entirely of expectation. I expected - an arrival, an explanation, an apology. There had never been one, in fact I could have accepted, were it not true that, just when I had got used to the limits and dimensions of one moment, I was expelled into the next and made to wonder again if any shapes hid in its shadows. That most moments were substantially the same did not detract at all from the possibility that the next moment might be utterly different. And so the ordinary demanded unblinking attention. Any tedious hour might be the last of its kind." (p.166)
Then looking out at the lake as they hitch a ride on a train back home across the bridge:
"Looking out at the lake one could believe that the Flood had never ended. If one is lost on the water, any hill is Ararat. And below is always the accumulated past, which vanishes but does not vanish, which perishes and remains." (p.172)
Swiftly after this their existence is threatened by the appearance of authority figures, concerned about Ruth. They make a last ditch attempt to appear normal, cleaning the house and burning years of accumulated newspapers and rubbish. When it becomes clear their efforts will not help, their unspoken pact is secured and they leave across the bridge together:
"I did not dare to turn my head at see if the house was burning. I was afraid that if I turned at all I would lose my bearings and misstep. It was so dark there might have been no Sylvie ahead of me, and the bridge might have been created itself under my foot as I walked, and vanished again behind me." (p.212)
Yet another book that it feels impossible to do justice to. I can merely offer you these hints at all it contains. This abiding sense of loss and abandonment, and loneliness. And an atmosphere of cold, not just the weather, because sometimes it is summer, but you feel like they never get warm. There is very little about the community that they live within, they remain apart from it, not rejecting, just not understanding or sharing anything with them. I felt very sad for the characters, their lack of belonging, even to each other, except the two girls, who inevitably grow apart, but for each of them their fear of losing again just creates a spiral of isolation. A very sad book, intriguing and thought provoking, but sad.