There’s an excellent discussion of Marilynne Robinson’s first novel, Housekeeping (1980), going on right now at Reading Room, the New York Times blog which hosts two-week-long online panel discussions led by editors of its Book Review. Participants include Allen Gurganus, who, together with Robinson, will join us in January as we examine HISTORICAL FICTION and The Search for Truth. I read Housekeeping for the first time last week. What follows is how I found it.
Housekeeping tells the story of two sisters growing up in the isolated western town of Fingerbone. Madness runs in their family, and men are mostly absent but for the memories adumbrated by fading photographs, dried flowers, and unread letters. Their mother’s suicide has delivered young Ruth and Lucille to the care of her sister Sylvie, a drifter, whose “housekeeping” is a hodgepodge of inabilities to come to terms with domesticity. When the girls are still quite young, Sylvie’s child-like capacity for make-believe makes her an excellent playmate; they become close friends and confidantes. As the girls grow older, however, they become more aware of Sylvie’s aloofness from ordinary human society. They battle over an allegiance to Sylvie, on the one hand, and the pressures of societal norms, on the other. It’s the story of sisters torn apart by adolescence, overwhelmed by the complexities of an adult world, handicapped by a family history riddled with unexplained absences. Here’s Ruth, our narrator:
When did I become so unlike other people? Either it was when I followed Sylvie across the bridge, and the lake claimed us, or it was when my mother left me waiting for her, and established in me the habit of waiting and expectation which makes any present moment most significant for what it does not contain. Or it was at my conception.
This is a mysterious book, a fiction which feels as if it could be fact, a tale of a human family rendered exotic by tethers to an other-world. “All this is fact,” Ruth tells us. “Fact explains nothing. On the contrary it is fact that requires explanation.” Robinson was a poet before writing this novel, and it shows in lucid, elusive prose wedded to a story of life as apparition. It is a gem, and gem-like, reading like the spare and opulent product of considered elisions, yielding luminous glimpses.