Tuesday, 26 August 2014

HOUSEKEEPING by Marilynne Robinson

Well, this is a book of an entirely different order. It makes you want to lay down your weapons and surrender, in the face of such an enormous achievement.

This is Robinson’s first novel. There is twenty five years between it and her second, GILEAD, which I read recently, and which also amazed me.

HOUSEKEEPING is the story of two young girls who are dropped off by their mother with their grandmother in the small town of Fingerbone one afternoon. The mother then commits suicide by driving into the lake there. The grandmother later dies, and the two girls are looked after by their aunt, who has been homeless for some decades. She still lives as a transient even in their home, pinning money to her clothes, sleeping with her shoes on, and so forth. The older girl, Lucille, leaves home as their aunt’s behavior grows stranger. The younger, Ruthie, eventually runs away with her aunt to become a transient also when the town threatens to separate them.

This being Robinson, the homelessness in this novel is not just homelessness. Instead, it is a meditation on our larger loneliness in the world.
Every spirit passing through the world fingers the tangible and mars the mutable, and finally has come to look and not to buy. So shoes are won and hassocks are sat upon and finally everything is left where it was and the spirit passes on, just as the wind in the orchard picks up the leaves from the ground as if there were no other pleasure in the world but brown leaves, as it would deck, clothe, flesh itself in flourishes of dusty brown apples leaves, and then drops them all in a heap at the side of the house and goes on.

In this world, everything has other layers, and purposes, as if it was not just a random collection of facts, but had some greater design or meaning. It’s steeped in the Bible in a way I’ve not encountered in any book written in this, or even the last century. It’s like taking a break from our prosaic times. Here she is in Fingerbone’s lake, imagining it at the resurrection:
Add to them the swimmers, the boaters and canoers, and in such a crowd my mother would hardly seem remarkable. There would be a general reclaiming of fallen buttons and misplaced spectacles, of neighbours and kin, till time and error and accident were undone, and the world became comprehensible and whole.

It’s also very well observed; here she is on walking in the forest: "But the deep woods are as dark and stiff and as full of their own odors as the parlor of an old house. We would walk among those great legs, hearing the enthralled and incessant murmurings far above our heads, like children at a funeral."
And on a teenage girl’s experience of other people’s opinions: "Lucille had a familiar, Rosette Brown, whom she feared and admired, and through whose eyes she continually imagined she saw."

And here she is on Fingerbone:
What with the lake and the railroads, and what with the blizzards and floods and barn fires and forest fires and the general availability of shotguns and bear traps and homemade liquor and dynamite, what with the prevalence of loneliness and religion and the rages and ecstasies they induce, and the closeness of families, violence was inevitable.

But what’s so powerful is the alternate meanings she sees in the ordinary. I fear she has forever destroyed for me puddles. Here she is, after discussing Noah and the flood:
And let God purge this wicked sadness away with a flood, and let the waters recede to pools and ponds and ditches, and let every one of them mirror heaven. Still, they taste a bit of blood and hair. One cannot cup one’s hand and drink from the rim of any lake without remembering that mothers have drowned in it, lifting their children toward the air, though they must have known as they did that soon enough the deluge would take all the children, too, even if their arms could have held them up.

I hope also to be able to forget eventually this description of the dawn chorus:
“That’s what frightens the birds,” Sylvie assured us, because she had never seen the sun come up but the birds first rose and cried what warning they could.

I am usually a great one for plot and character, and while I did not greatly care for either the plot or the characters, I still felt like blubbing at the end of this almost impossibly good novel.

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