Thursday, August 21, 2014

Not a Bestseller, not that Old, and not Forgotten: Housekeeping, by Marilynne Robinson

Housekeeping, by Marilynne Robinson

A review by Rich Horton

Apologies this week, because this book was certainly not a bestseller, and also cannot be called forgotten. But I'm a bit behind on the next "Old Bestseller" I wanted to cover, so I beg your indulgence while I cover one of my favorite books of recent years.

Marilynne Robinson was born in 1943 in Sandpoint, Idaho. She attended Pembroke College, then the women's college at Brown University, and got her Ph. D. at the University of Washington. She has primarily been an academic since then, famously at the University of Iowa's notorious writing program; but at many other places as well. She is also noticeably a Christian writer: she was raised Presbyterian and became a Congregationalist, which is the United States' version of John Calvin's Reformed Church. It's all a bit convoluted, as Congregationalists are now part of the United Church of Christ, which seems a lot more liberal than the reputation of Calvinism. Robinson's views here are, as far as I can tell, politically liberal but theologically quite conservative (or Reformed) -- which to my mind is not really where the UCC is these days. (I have a UCC friend, and they seem to me politically liberal and also theologically "liberal", whatever that means.)

Robinson came to my attention with the 2005 novel Gilead, or more precisely, with an excerpt from Gilead published in the New Yorker. I loved the novel, which is about a Congregationalist pastor in Iowa in the 1950s. At the time her only other novel was Housekeeping, written about a quarter century before Gilead. It  had also been very well received in literary circles, though I don't think it got quite the attention (or sales) that Gilead received. (After all Gilead won the Pulitzer Prize.) Since then Robinson has written two more novels, both set contemporaneously with Gilead and covering the same events from a different perspective. Home (2008) is an incredibly powerful novel, and Lila is coming out this October -- I can only hope it is as good as Gilead and Home.

In many ways Gilead is a novel about fathers and sons. So it is convenient to describe Housekeeping as a novel about mothers and daughters. (And indeed Home turned out to be, to a great extent, about a father and a daughter.) And to a considerable extent this is true, though as with Gilead, any simplistic description sheerly fails to capture any idea of what the book is like. Still, it is true that it is told from the point of view of a woman whose mother committed suicide, and who, along with her younger sister, was after that raised by first her grandmother, then two rather dotty great-aunts, and finally her mother's somewhat odd sister. But in no way does that describe the effect of this quite lovely book.

The novel is set in Fingerbone, Idaho, an isolated town on the shores of a mountain lake. Ruth, or Ruthie, is the narrator. She and her sister Lucille spend the bulk of their childhood in the house their grandfather built after coming, almost on a whim, to Fingerbone. Their grandfather worked on the railroad until his spectacular death in a derailment. There were three daughters. One became a missionary, and the other two married quite unsuitably -- neither marriage seeming to last long.

Ruthie and Lucille live with their mother for a few years in Seattle, after their father, who seems unknown to everyone, abandons them, and then their mother takes a borrowed car to Fingerbone, drops the girls off at her mother's house, and drives the car into the lake. There follows a few years with their matter of fact and sensible grandmother, a few months with the rather comical great aunts, then the arrival of Sophie, their aunt, who was married about as unsuitably as their mother, and probably for a much shorter time. Apparently she has become a hobo, or in Robinson's term a transient, riding the rails in the Upper Northwest. The bulk of the novel concerns Ruthie and Lucille's life with Sophie, and how they are affected by Sophie's "housekeeping", or lack thereof. The two girls, for a long time close only to each other, react differently to Sophie's ways, leading to a quite unexpected resolution.

Indeed the novel surprises everywhere. It is not ever what the reader expects -- it is always original. This extends to the prose, which is as lovely and elegant and firm as that of Gilead, though in a somewhat different voice. If I was to nitpick I would say that I had a firmer sense that the first person narrative in Gilead represented the narrator's voice, while in Housekeeping I think it is more the author's voice than Ruthie's. But quite a lovely voice -- the prose is simply wonderful. Best perhaps to offer longish quote: "Imagine a Carthage sown with salt, and all the sowers gone, and the seeds lain however long in the earth, till there rose finally in vegetable profusion leaves and trees of rime and brine. What flowering would there be in such a garden? 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 where would be greater need of slaking. For need can blossom into all the compensations it requires. 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 upon one's hair is all but to feel it. So whatever we may lose, very craving gives it back to us again. Though we dream and hardly know it, longing, like an angel, fosters us, smooths our hair, and brings us wild strawberries."

Housekeeping is a remarkable novel. The spare cold Western landscape is central. Everywhere there is solitude, abandonment. Everywhere houses are lost, not kept. It is quite strikingly moving, and as I said quite unexpected at every turn. As I said it is one of my favorite novels I've read in the past decade -- and Home is another, a great great novel.

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