I was first introduced to Marilynne Robinson via a library loan of Home one of her books set in the fictional town of Gilead, which she has explored in some depth in subsequent books and which, perhaps, have become her better known works. I recall finding Home interesting, but not especially stirring. Then I read Housekeeping. Housekeeping is the book that established Marilynne Robinson as a cornerstone writer for me, creating a reading relationship which is sustainining and rewarding. Housekeeping is a book I can read and re-read, there is always something in it worth finding.
Housekeeping is a story of transience, of transitory lives, of connections which are easily broken and those which endure in spite of all that would seek to break them. The story revolves around two girls – Ruth (Ruthie) and Lucille -whose history is one of transience, of passing through many hands. This journey began far back before they were born with their grandfather, who moved from his flat life in the flat mid-west to the town of Fingerbone, a town that was “chastened by an outsized landscape and extravagent weather, and chastened again by an awareness that the whole of human history had occured elsewhere”. In this lake-and-mountain country he made his home, married, made a family with three children: Molly, Helen and Sylvie; here he worked for the railroad, and here his life ended in a spectacular train accident when the train slipped off the tracks into the lake that dominates the town of Fingerbone.
The three girls drifted each in their own direction: Molly to a missionary life, Helen – as mother to Ruthie and Lucille – to one of family, Sylvie to transience. Then one day Helen drops her two girls off at her mother’s house, turns and drives into the lake. Thus the girls pass into another set of hands. Then their grandmother dies and they are left with Lily and Nona, unknown grand-aunts who last a season before passing them into the hands of Sylvie. And this is where the story truly begins. This opening has about it the quality of a saga or a book of the Bible where this begat that and the whole of history span from a single event – the grandfather’s move to Fingerbone – which sent ripples cascading through the ages. Thus the girls were to be forever bounded by the railway and the lake, and these two things dictate their life’s journey.
Sylvie has lived a transient life, she is present and absent and fails to provide the two girls with the kind of solid and rooted existence which is expected. They eat cold food in the darkness, they truant – spending days down by the lake -the house slips into wrack and ruin. Sylvie collects tin cans and newspapers, she fills the house with cats to deal with the swallows nesting in the eaves and the mice in the woodpile. Ruthie, quiet and introspective, naturalises to this life. Lucille does not. Like the ice which skins the lake in Fingerbone, their loosely knit family begins to come apart.
The story of Housekeeping is slim, but the themes are profound and as deep as the lake which dominates the story. Seen from the perspective of Ruthie, Robinson explores the idea of transience – both of the kind of drifting of people who do not fix themselves within the solid bounds of ordinary society: grifters, transients, those that ride the railroads and do not fix themselves to a place or way of being; as well as the natural transience of life, its shortness and unexpected tenuousness. Houses degrade, landscapes shift, ice melts and reforms, families break apart and are lost. Yet through these things there are threads, ripples, echoes which endure even though the voice which spoke and the ear which hear have not existed in the same time. Even memory, that phenomena which forms a core part of our identity, is subject to the same hazards of transience, deceit and flaw, as Ruthie reflects here:
“I simply let the darkness in the sky become coextensive with the darkness in my skull, bowels and bones. Everything that falls upon the eye is apparition, a sheet dropped over the world’s true workings. The nerves and the brain are tricked, and one is left with dreams that these spectres loose their hands from our and walk away, the curve of the back and the swing of the coat so familiar as to imply that they should be permanent fixtures of the world, when in fact nothing is more perishable. Say that my mother was as tall as a man and that she sometimes set me on her shoulders, so that I could splash my hands in the cold leaves above our heads. Say that my grandmother sang in her throat while she sat on her bed and we laced up her big black shoes. Such details are merely accidental. Who could know but us? And since their thoughts were bent upon other ghosts than ours, other darknesses than we had seen, why must we be left, the survivors picking among flotsam, among the small, unnoticed, unvalued clutter that was all that remained when they vanished, that only catastrophe made notable? Darkness is the only solvent. While it was dark, despite Lucille’s pacing and whistling, and despite what must have been dreams (since even Sylvie came to haunt me) it seemed to me that there need not be relic, remnant, margin, residue, memento, bequest memory, thought, trace, or trace, if only the darkness could be perfect and permanent.”
It is a fascinating theme, aided by a perfect tone and beautiful writing. There is a melancholy undertone to Housekeeping, a reminder that we are subject to decay and death no matter how we surround ourselves with solid structures to trick ourselves into believing otherwise. Yet it is not all melancholy. There is something beautiful in it, the willingness to drift and allow something more to seep into our lives than the mere practical and socially acceptable. Robinson does not deride transiency, vagrancy, but explores the ways in which is threatens those who cling to the solid – those who have roots, who believe they are a permanent, fixed structure which can be torn down by outside forces. She makes the case for permeability, a case which in these times of force migration, of fear of immigrants and those who would force us to confront a different way of thinking has become near hysteria, is worth listening to. She reminds us that we step lightly on this Earth and no matter how hard we try nothing we do will grant us permanence. We are our thoughts, our experiences, the summation of our ancestry and all those things will be lost when we go. Yet we can have everything we desire in this life by believing in something more, by wishing and allowing ourselves to be fulfilled by those dreams:
“To crave and to have are as like a thing and its shadow. For when does a berry break upon the tongue as sweetly as when one longs to taste it, and when is the taste refracted into so many hues and savours of ripeness and earth, and when do our senses know anything so utterly as when we lack it. And here again is a foreshadowing – the world will be made whole. For to wish for a hand is one’s hair is all but to feel it. So whatever we may lose, very craving gives it back to us again. Thouth we dream and hardly know it, olonging, like an angel, fosters us, smooths our hair and brings us wild strawberries.”
Because Housekeeping is a slight book – a mere 219 pages long – and because I am not reading more than one book per week I was able to read it once and then again and the second time I learned more, felt more. I lingered over certain paragraphs. I spent some time thinking about transience, about why the idea of living a transient life threatens us and the way in which it reminds us that whatever we gain we will lose and how that thought can be a source of fear or of comfort. In my present desire to read less it was a perfect text because it reminded me that it does not matter if I don’t read the latest release. There will always be books I have not read, books that are lost to me, but those books I have read will be lost to me too in the end. So what does it matter if I never visit Japan, that I will not cure cancer or leave behind a legacy of writing that is valued throughout the ages. All those things will be lost too, and none of it will really matter when I’m gone. In quashing those outward desires, I can begin to see my inward ones much more clearly. This feels like a valuable path to embark upon.
Housekeeping is an extraordinary book. It has its flaws – name a book that doesn’t? But it is beautiful, elegiac in tone, it is light and deep, it is like a lake that you look into and you see superficially in the beginning but gradually, as your eyes grow accustomed to the thin light, you begin to see fish and reeds and floating bits of detritus, mud lifted from the floor far below, and beneath that blackness and darkness which seems impenetrable but which, with sufficient time, we will come to know even that darkness, willingly or not. And the light distracts us with reflections and shadows, but the light fades and our perspective changes. And she counsels that we leave ourselves open to that change in perspective and that we should experience not just with our mind but with our senses – we need to touch the ice to know the nature of ice, we need to see it form and melt, but we also need to understand that we will never know the nature of ice, that there is always going to be something outside our reach and in this way we can never claim it as our own.