A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
My name is Ruth. I grew up with my younger sister, Lucille, under the care of my grandmother, Mrs. Sylvia Foster, and when she died, of her sisters-in-law, Misses Lily and Nona Foster, and when they fled, of her daughter, Mrs. Sylvia Fisher. Through all these generations of elders we lived in one house…
These are the opening lines of Marilynne Robinson’s astonishing 1980 debut novel, Housekeeping. It tells the story of Ruth and Lucille as they grow up under a succession of relatives after the suicide of their mother, Helen. At first their grandmother, at whose house their mother has left them, treats them as she did her own three daughters: with quiet diligence. There is no apparent emotional connection, rather a more pragmatic idea of duty and “keeping house”. After her death come Lily and Nona, two spinster great-aunts who have come from their retirement home to take up residence in the family house. They provide comic relief with their near constant panic about what to do with the girls. As soon as possible they escape back to their retirement home, having summoned Sylvia (Sylvie), the girls’ aunt.
Sylvie is a wanderer, and Ruth and Lucille are never quite convinced that she won’t wander off again. She sleeps with her shoes under her pillow, and keeps a $20 bill pinned to the underside of her coat lapel. However, she is taken with the girls and decides to try and do her best at housekeeping for their sake. It’s not easy for anyone involved: Sylvie prefers to do everything in semi-darkness and one particularly striking moment in the novel comes with Lucille, frustrated with the household dynamic, snaps the kitchen light on during an evening meal. This simple action has the same effect as a violent act, throwing harsh light on the situation they are in.
Darkness pervades the novel, with many important moments happening in the dark or at night. Water is also everywhere. Their small Idaho town sits on the edge of a large lake that is prone to flooding, and at one point the water pours into the house itself. They don’t flee to safety, though, they live with it until the water subsides. It becomes what might be considered a guest in the house. The lake is something to be respected, for it has mighty power. In the very beginning pages, we learn the fate of the girls’ grandfather: a train he was a passenger on derailed while crossing the rickety bridge over the lake and disappeared fully into its depths. Nothing (nor no one) was ever recovered. You can never quite forget the lake’s sinister contents.
Ultimately, Ruth and Lucille react very differently to their unusual home situation, and the novel’s compelling final section sees the literal and metaphorical destruction of the house and family unit.
Marilynne Robinson’s literary reputation is well-known, especially after President Obama said that another of her novels, Gilead, is one of his favourites. The Observer recently chose Housekeeping to be one of their 100 best novels. But, oh, what a debut. Her writing is characterised by a quiet determination and lyrical way with words. The narrative voice is calm and confident, and demands that the novel be read slowly and deliberately. No rushing here. I think that’s good for the soul, you know. There are so many novels that I’ve loved but torn through in a couple of days, and it’s good to be forced to take it slowly once in a while.
Marilynne Robinson, Housekeeping (London: Faber and Faber, 2004 edn). ISBN 0571164021. RRP £7.99.