I am probably shooting myself in the foot, as John Self has also just written a review of Housekeeping, but sometimes we just need to soldier on despite all circumstances. Anyhow, I want to start with the cover. The edition I have – see above – is unprepossessing. (My shoes, however, are nice.) All the fervent lust with which I typically pursue secondhand Penguins usually goes to some dark place far away when I behold an 80s King Penguin. Images on these covers are generally so insipid as to be insulting to my inner rabid minimalist. Sure, they were the first of Penguin’s series to have pictorial illustrations on their covers, but honestly, I wish they hadn’t bothered. (The pictures on the inside of the 1940s KPs, though, are stunning.) Just remember, however, this is me talking, a person to whom a world in which every book looked like this:
would be bliss. I’m just waiting for the phone call from Penguin’s permissions people. As Phill Jupitus would say: ‘Bring on the points, bitch.’
But to the book’s subtle proceedings, which are far more wonderful than this unspeakable and indulgent introduction would indicate. I feel like a blackguard for allowing all this silliness to precede discussion of a novel whose gossamer delicacy forms one of the pillars of Marilynne Robinson’s reputation as a writer of the highest distinction. Housekeeping was her first novel, and was followed 24 years later by Gilead. This year, her novel Home won the Orange Prize. I’m not going to read Home for another couple of years — I’m saving it.
Crushing as it always is to resort to a book-discussion cliché, I read this book as slowly and driftingly as physicality and my hunger for its poetry would allow. Robinson’s prose is at once icicle-sharp and somnolent, glacial. In Housekeeping, it tells the story of Ruth, a girl from Fingerbone, a tiny outpost on the edge of nowhere selected as a hometown by her grandfather for its multitude of mountains. Ruth has a sister, Lucille, but no mother:
She asked them very pleasantly to help her push her car out of the mud, and they went so far as to put their blankets and coats under the wheels to facilitate her rescue. When they got the Ford back to the road she thanked them, gave them her purse, rolled down the rear windows, started the car, turned the wheel as far to the right as it would go, and roared swerving and sliding across the meadow until she sailed off the edge of the cliff.
The girls change hands through various maternal substitutes: first, their grandmother, then their maiden great-aunts, and end up in the care of their aunt Sylvie, an itinerant whose ways are unwelcome in small-town society. Gentle, stealthy, self-effacing Sylvie is loving but vague; she roams the woods in the mornings, throwing chunks of ice at the dogs who follow her home.
So inattentive, Sylvie is no barrier to the games Ruth and Lucille like to play, if what they like to do can indeed be called games. Many times deracinated sur place, the girls begin to associate visibility with powerlessness, and retreat into the woods for nights on end. Their attempts to escape from view are enacted by the two ‘almost as a single consciousness’, but their disappearances are felt as a different mantle on each girl’s back. Ruth — contemplative, curious — countenances their elopements with interest and equanimity, while Lucille suffers her self-imposed banishment greatly. The velvet-and-blood tension of the girls’ zygotic existence, it seems, will break upon what quality of acceptance each can foster towards the possibility of otherness.
Housekeeping recalls the qualities of a wishbone, with its invitation to break irretrievably that which was born resolute, whole, but divided as from an inviolable vertex. Housekeeping is resounding literature born from the dual sense of the verb ‘to cleave’. Robinson, with tender accretion and signal focus, examines the effects of the sonorous edicts of society and the stillness in the crevices between conventional words and things. Though her characters are few, and she pursues them through backwaters, nothing in Robinson’s world is mundane: she shows us that significant things don’t need to be violent to be absolute.
Bonus for you: Marilynne Robinson on writing.