A blog for everything bookish

Tuesday 13 March 2012

Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson

When I was first researching great female writers, the name Marilynne Robinson came up. Her catalogue is small (she's written a mere 3 books) but all the vibe suggested that those three books were like diamonds in paper form. So, last year I read Home which is a beautifully written, sad story. And then a kind friend bought me a copy of Housekeeping for Christmas. I finally got around to reading it.

There's not a great deal of story in Housekeeping. Primarily we follow the fortunes of two sisters, Ruthie and Lucille, and the story is told from the perspective of Ruthie and it's a story of loss, of transience, and the tenuous links of family. We begin with the death of Ruthie's grandfather, a man she'd never known, who was claimed by the lake in the town of Fingerbone, a town he'd moved to from the flatlands of the Midwest in a search for mountains. Fingerbone, in itself, is a transient town. Transient in the sense that it's subject to the vagaries of nature: fire and flood, the swamping weight of snow and ice. But also in its position on the railway, which attracts people who are only ever passing through.

Ruthie and Lucille's own story begins when their mother, Helen, about who they knew so little, drops them off at her mother's house in Fingerbone then drives her borrowed car into the lake. Ruthie and Lucille are then brought up by their grandmother, then after their grandmother's death by her sisters Nona and Lily who in turn brought in their Aunt, their mother's sister, Sylvie then left them to her. And Sylvie in her own right is transient, transient in body and spirit, an unconventional guardian for two small girls.

It is, quite simply, a beautifully written book. It has a delicacy, like a thin film of ice, and the prose is simply drenched with poetics. At times it feels like you're reading your way through a long, mystical dream, but don't be fooled by that. Housekeeping is rooted by strong themes, themes of family and loss, the links that bind us to a place, to a set of people who may not be our choice but who are our family. Throughout the upbringing of Ruthie and Lucille, their lives have been punctuated by loss and yet each guardian tries, in their own way, to bring a kind of solidity, a fake solidity, to their lives. And each guardian fails, until, surprisingly, Sylvie. It is her very transience, her gossamer-like grip on what is 'normal' that creates a sense of permanence in both children albeit in slightly different ways.

There is wisdom in this book. You have to grasp a bit for it, it isn't easy, and I can see how it could be accused of being a book which is about nothing, because it does have this sense of being thinly stitched together, but to me this was the strength of the book. If you don't like poetically written fiction, then this book is not for you, but for me it was beautiful. At a time in my life when I feel like reality has me in an iron grip, this was exactly the book I needed. Because in its dreamlike prose it reminds us that 'reality' is only what seems normal, and that normality in itself is an image, a thin veil which can be torn aside to reveal something more true underneath. That beneath respectability is at worst violence and at best habit. That what is deemed 'abnormal' is merely different and is threatening only in that it makes us challenge our own habits and find them questionable, that it makes us question the solidity of our own lives, the rocks on which we lean, and find them resting on surface tension alone over the waters of a great lake.

After reading Housekeeping I feel as though I have been steeped in a lake filled with beautiful language ,and a quiet wisdom that is ever so slightly out of my reach. Ghostlike. And stunning. A beautiful, transient read.

Housekeeping receives a stunning 9/10 Biis.

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