Housekeeping

by Joshua Potter

I cannot recall more precise, considered prose than this; Housekeeping reads like a proseminar in the novelistic form and its meditations are all at once intriguing, intricate, and immediate.

Marilynne Robinson / American / 1980 / 219 pages

When compared to many of their artistic brethren, novelists really got the fuzzy end of the popsicle stick. My stomach almost churns when I think about the sustained mental activity and sheer intellectual endurance that underlie a masterpiece in the novelistic form. A flash of brilliance might yield an excellent painting. A moment of inspiration may engender a particularly compelling sonnet. A musician might be able to draw on a sudden melodic vision in the course of writing a song. Even, perhaps, the writer of short stories might be able to avail himself of the late night, wrote-it-in-one-sitting method. But it’s a completely different animal when it comes to the novel. I can think of a few dozen truly brilliant novels, but consistency of composition is not an attribute that emerges from their ranks; indeed, it’s not a virtue I typically extol because I don’t typically run across it in the course of reading what I would consider brilliant writing. My favorite novels are awe-inspiring in parts or have especially poignant scenes, but they are not — from outset to denouement — brilliant throughout. The opening of the novel could have packed more momentum, the tedious bit in the middle made more dynamic, the end might have been drawn out, curtailed, modified, and on and on. I think consistency of composition is an elusive goal at the highest levels of the craft. This is why there is some hazard in writing. This is why perfection is an empty ambition. This is why we never got the Great American Novel.

So you can imagine my astonishment when I picked up Housekeeping. Here is a book that unfolds densely in the first few pages and draws you deeply into the narration in the most razor-sharp and precisely calculated of fashions. Each lengthy paragraph is comprised of the perfect balance of empirics, metaphor, and words familiar and obscure. The dialogue is sparse both in frequency and in execution, but rings clear with perfect pitch and timbre. Robinson’s development of characters, though lean, is total. Her chilly, frigid descriptions of water, forests, and rurality are haunting. Previously well-trodden themes such as family life, individuality, and gender roles are updated in nuanced and thought-provoking capacities. I waited a few pages for the magical effect to wear thin. I waited some more. I was still waiting when my jaw hit the floor upon finishing the novel’s final sentence. This is, quite simply, an awesome book.

The plot is readily garnered from the back of the book and is, really, not so important in itself. Two young sisters are orphaned when their mother commits suicide and are left in the care of their elderly grandmother. It is not long before the grandmother passes on and a couple of great aunts move into the house to temporarily play the parental role. They grow tired of the responsibility rather quickly and manage to track down the sisters’ elusive aunt (their mother’s younger sister) on whom they pawn off the still young children. It is here that the story gets going and the rest of the novel explores the relationships between Ruth and Lucille (the sisters) and Sylvie (the aunt). Although initially at ease with one another, these relationships will be tested by mounting pressures from the girls’ school and from the surrounding townsfolk.

Housekeeping is set in the rural, densely forested town of Fingerbone, where harsh winters and unchecked wildlife serve as constant reminders that the natural world is both vast and uncontrollable. The town is the sister’s and Sylvie’s ancestral homestead, but all three are resident aliens when it comes to understanding the town and its dynamics. The sisters were first deposited on the steps of their grandmother’s house mere minutes before their mother killed herself and Sylvie, by returning to care for the children, has come back to a memory of her previous life that she abandoned decades prior. Ruth and Lucille skip school and play alongside a lake deep in the woods while Sylvie wanders aimlessly through the house and the town, more in touch with events contained entirely inside the confines of her own head than those transpiring all around her. Indeed, Sylvie presents as being comfortably, innocuously insane and the ways in which she chooses to keep the house (or not keep the house, as it were) seem to lend credence to such suspicions. Bottles and cans pile up in all corners of the house, cats run rampant, the garden is only sporadically tended to and meals are typically bland affairs taken in candlelit quasi-darkness.

The crux of the novel is the exploration of this simple setting, of scrutinizing it through the prism of Ruth’s first-person narration. The narrative perspective that Robinson employs is a real treat: Ruth at various times grows so close to both her sister and her aunt that her use of “I” almost doubles as the plural “we.” The thoughts and actions of Lucille and Sylvie invade Ruth’s thoughts to such an extent that, in a latent capacity, the reader is presented with a much richer set of insights. Ruth also tends toward extended and somewhat mystical ruminations where she speculates about the dead walking among the living, about recollections of the past lives of the family members she has lost, and about unseen forest consciousnesses against which she must be on her guard. Her tendency to weave empirical observations with metaphorical speculation borders on the schizophrenic, but is beautiful. Robinson relies so heavily on lyrical, robust prose in these sections of the novel that I was often left completely (pleasantly) bewildered. Somehow, subtly, Ruth’s simple observations explode into the cosmos. Somehow, inexplicably, past blends with present and both bleed seamlessly into the afterlife.

Though the book is almost exclusively about females, I do not think that it is a feminist work (or, at least, not so simply a feminist work). And although it is a novel about family, about belonging and about identity, I think one would be rather surprised at some of the angles from which Robinson chooses to set her scenes. The author is evidently very familiar with the bible as a text, with Emerson, Melville, and Hawthorne, indeed, with the full weight of American literature that preceded her. Robinson draws extensively from this menagerie of influences and this lends an aura of age to the book that belies its 1980 publication. There are very few bells and whistles here, but in their stead Robinson offers us something truly uncommon: a carefully written novel where each word is worth its space in the text. This has to be one of the most consistently well-composed books ever written and it is certainly one of the best books I have ever read.

Rating: 10 / 10

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