Among the various reasons for keeping this blog, the one I keep coming back to is to help me remember. I doubt if it is just me who forgets the detail of a novel, then the main events and protagonists, and finally come to doubt whether I have even read it at all. Which is why it is important that I write carefully about Marilynne Robinson’s ‘Housekeeping’, because otherwise there is not a chance in hell of me remembering it in a few months time.
The novel is narrated by Ruthie, and tells of the events of her childhood. Orphaned by the suicide of her mother she is brought up with her sister Lucille by their grandmother, then two elderly great-aunts, and finally by her aunt Sylvie. It is never stated directly, but it is fairly evident that Sylvie is mentally disturbed – she neglects the children, fills the house with rubbish and cats, and can often be found staring out into space. Housekeeping, the semi-ironic title, is not something that occurs to her, and even in the broader sense she struggles to keep a house for the girls, the younger of whom escapes to live with a teacher as soon as she is able. Finally, after Ruthie’s neglect becomes inescapable, and it appears likely she is going to be taken into care. To avoid this she and Sylvie run away, and at the novel’s close we are told they continue to live the rootless life of transients.
‘Housekeeping’ is one of those novels where the sense of place is vital. The isolated American town of Fingerbone (admittedly a fine name for a town) is settled next to a large lake, crossed by a railway bridge. From said bridge and into said lake a train crashed, carrying with it Ruthie’s grandfather, setting in chain the events that lead to this story, and providing a backdrop for the narrative itself. Think ‘Twin Peaks’ without the murder or (some of) the craziness. It always seems to be bitterly cold down in Fingerbone, and the chill and damp coming off the lake exudes from the pages.
Robinson left it almost another twenty-five years after publishing ‘Housekeeping’ to publish another novel, but it cannot have been because of the reception of this her first, prize-winning attempt. In his Guardian review Robert McCrum goes to far to say, surely in an act of wild over-exaggeration, that Robinson introduces a “new, timeless, and utterly distinctive voice into the magical polyphony of the American novel”. While she can certainly craft an image – for example “watching gulls fly like sparks up the face of clouds that dragged rain the lenght of the lake” this restraint and economy is often absent. At times the writing is extraordinarily over-written, as here:
“To crave and to have are as like as a thing and its shadow. For when does a berry break upon the tongue as sweetly as when one longs to taste it, and when is the taste refracted into so many hues and savors of ripeness and earth, and when do our senses know any thing so utterly as when we lack it? And here again is a foreshadowing–-the world will be made whole. For to wish for a hand on one’s hair is all but to feel it. So whatever we may lose, very craving gives it back to us again.”
Does it really? Or is this the triumph of style over substance, attractive to literature prize-juries but simply not that interesting?