In 2003, when the Observer newspaper compiled a list of “the 100 greatest novels of all time,” one title – Housekeeping – stood out. What? It was the only one from the last century that I hadn’t heard of. Who? Marilynne Robinson sounded like a new Harper Lee: one bang a quarter of a century ago and then silence. Now, six years later, she needs no introduction: two more novels in quick succession, a Pulitzer, a Bessie, and overall as much orgiastic praise as you can eat. I’ve read Gilead but not Home, but was pleased recently when a book swap project landed me with a copy of that (suddenly reprinted) debut.
My recollection of Gilead – perhaps distorted – is that a heavy religiosity pervaded each page, so I approached Housekeeping (1981) with doubts. There is a hymnal, if not quite biblical, quality to the prose: solid but lyrical, Southern without gothic. It sometimes overreaches (for a death we have “my grandmother one winter morning eschewed awakening”), but mostly it is what politicians would call fit for purpose. The first third of the book takes its time unpacking the opening paragraph:
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.
The aim, I suppose, is that the reader should itch to know what became of their mother and why they passed through so many hands. In creating this need, and then satisfying it, Robinson proves herself to be adept in aspects of literary magic. As well as providing aesthetic pleasure in her prose, the sort that begs to be rolled around in the mouth before swallowing, she sketches brilliant set pieces a page or two in length, little essences of storytelling – as when a train slides into the lake.
The lake is central to the story, and to Ruth and Lucille’s lives in the town of Fingerbone (the name so effortfully evocative that it’s almost comical). Unanchored to a fixed family, as the figures surrounding them change, the sisters develop an attachment to the landscape instead. The lake is “a place of distinctly domestic disorder”, surrounded by “uncountable mountains.” It seems from the outset destined to bring tragedy, but isn’t that what lakes do in literature?
Lake, woods, place: it can all seem a little literary-fiction-by-numbers, but that is not to deny the power of the telling. “Fact explains nothing,” we are told, so it’s a book of impressions and memories, informal but not unreliable. Robinson continues to display her best writerly skills, surprising us with comedy, as when the sisters-in-law Lily and Nona Foster first meet Sylvia, who they hope can take over care for the girls:
So when Lily said, with a glance at Nona, “What a lovely dress,” it was as if to say, “She seems rather sane! She seems rather normal!” And when Nona said, “You look very well,” it was as if to say, “Perhaps she’ll do! Perhaps she can stay and we can go!”
As that opening paragraph told us, she does stay; they do go. There is a fine touch too of character sketching in the traditional sense, witty and not too wordy:
Bernice, who lived below us, was our only visitor. She had lavender lips and orange hair, and arched eyebrows each drawn in a single brown line, a contest between practice and palsy which sometimes ended at her ear. She was an old woman, but managed to look like a young woman with a ravaging disease. She stood any number of hours in our doorway, her long back arched and her arms folded on her spherical belly, telling scandalous stories in a voice hushed in deference to the fact that Lucille and I should not be hearing them.
The accumulation of all these elements is impressive, because the writing remains low-key enough for it not to look like showing off. (Though perhaps such literary coquettishness is itself a form of showing off.) When the people and the town are associated so closely, it’s obvious that Robinson is pulling out another literary trick – foreshadowing – as when Ruth tells us, “There was not a soul there but knew how shallow-rooted the whole town was. It flooded yearly, and had burned once.”
What that leads to is a pretty dramatic last few scenes, particularly so for a book others have described as one where not much happens. One might say that the way events accumulate in the story is the same way that Housekeeping became a modern classic: gradually, and then suddenly.