Faber republished Marilynne Robinson’s 1981 Housekeeping in its Modern Classics series last year, selected by Barbara Kingsolver who said “I honestly believe reading her prose slows down my respiration and heart rate, bringing me to a state of keen, meditative attention”. Like Kingsolver, I too believe this novel is a marvel, carefully measured, a revelation. It is sense and poetry, felt on the skin and in the soul simultaneously; a wonder.
Ruthie and Lucille are two sisters, raised by their mother Helen, then their grandmother, then her sisters-in-law, and then when they leave their youngest aunt Sylvie. We are in the fictional town of Fingerbone, Idaho, a town ruptured by the railway and haunted by the lake. Three generations grow up in this house, lives dictated by seasons, doused in light and water, surrounded by mountains relentless in their presence.
Ruthie’s grandfather dies before she is born, as the train he is on soars off the bridge in the middle of the night into the lake. Barely anything is recovered, and the train and its passengers stay under the black depths. Afterwards, her grandmother and her three daughters – Ruthie’s mother and aunts – live a forgotten, quiet life, “Their lives spun off the tilting world like thread off a single, breakfast time, suppertime, lilac time, apple time.”.
This book hit me like a smack to all my senses: it is lyrical and lush, narrated sparely, immersive in its imagery. In a lot of ways, Housekeeping reminded me of Michael Ondaatje the way it immediately pulls you in and under with its beauty and vivid descriptions of light and touch and nature. The concerns struck me as similar as well: we are in a rural place, in an older time, with a family separate but together, with a preoccupation with difference, loneliness and being alone.
Fingerbone is a stunning, repressive place; Ruthie and Lucille’s lives are dictated by their eccentric aunt, rural life, the endless pull of the lake and the potential that the trains promise. Their grandmother also accepted the basic religious dogma of religion, and so as Ruth falls into the loss and grief of their past themes of the afterlife are woven into her thoughts.
But the writing, the writing. A ruined home and orchard, hidden in a valley, still covered with frost:
“Imagine a Carthage sown with salt, and all the sowers gone, an the seeds lain however long in the earth, till there rose finally in vegetable profusion leaves and trees of rime and brine… Light would force each salt calyx to open in prisms, and to fruit heavily with bright globes of water – peaches and grapes are little more than that, and where the world was salt there would be greater need of slaking.”
The clash and pain of ice on the lake as the town suffers a flood echoes through the town:
“The afternoon was loud with the giant miseries of the lake, and the sun shone on, and the flood was the almost flawless mirror of a cloudless sky, flat with brimming and very calm…Our walking from the stairs to the door had set off an intricate system of small currents which rolled against the floorboards. Glyphs of crimped and plaited light swung across the walls and the ceiling.”
My heart beat slowed reading this book; I paused, relished, reread, rolled phrases and words back around just to enjoy the feel. Robinson is an absolutely incredible writer; this book is pure poetry that is felt in the bones. Housekeeping is an astounding book, philosophical and stunning, indelibly sensory, powerful and perfect.