Saturday, 20 August 2016

Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson


With this, I've finished the last of Marilynne Robinson's four novels, which is a strangely melancholy feeling. I can't think of another writer who has moved me so profoundly and consistently over the last few years. Like Alistair MacLeod, she's an author where you treasure the few novels she's put out so far, while bemoaning the fact that there aren't more. I guess I'll have to delve into her nonfiction next. 

In finishing, I'm also going back, as Housekeeping was published first by a long shot. I read her Gilead trilogy first, and then went back to the source, so to speak. As such, it's not surprising that a lot of my thoughts were about how Sylvie and Ruth were, in many ways, precursors to ideas I think she brought to even better fruition in Lila. (Which is not to diminish this book in any way - it may not have moved me to tears as each book in the Gilead trilogy did, but it was still strongly affecting.)

The book is very strongly about loss and leaving, both deliberate and accidental, although more and more of the losses are deliberate as the book goes on. Ruth and Lucille are the granddaughters of a family that lost the one man in their lives in a train accident many years ago, and grew up in a very silent but not unloving female household of one mother and her three daughters.

Ruth and Lucille were not alive for that loss, but they were for the next, when their mother left them on their grandmother's doorstep before committing suicide in the same lake that claimed her father. They do not know why, and it is not a mystery that gets revealed. They live with their grandmother for many years, but then she dies as they are becoming young women. After a brief stint with two great-aunts, their aunt Sylvie comes back to their town to take care of them.

But Sylvie does not seem like a safe bet for long-term security in one place, coming to them after years of being a transient, riding the rails and drifting from place to place. She comes to the house moving on a different rhythm from what they have known or what the town expects. Lucille chafes at the differences in housekeeping when Sylvie is there, comes to believe that there is safety in normalcy, and will pursue it, even if it means leaving behind her family and home.

Even as she leaves her family behind, what remains is picked at by people who cannot believe that Sylvie can do what is necessary in keeping a house together, or a family, or raise a teenaged niece. Ruth is more like her aunt than not, but feels powerless to fight actively against the forces pulling her recreated family apart.

At the same point, the book raises a theme of homes and houses not necessarily being women's natural domains. That it is learned, not given. Every time I try to tease out these themes, I feel like I'm being obvious and ham-handed in a way that the books are not. They are simply complex, not didactic, and reward thought and emotion. In that way, Housekeeping is gentle and powerful as it looks at women who are not at home in the world as it is, in the world as it has been made, and perhaps least at home of all in that space they are told should be uniquely theirs, their presumed natural habitat.

So there is leaving and then there is leaving, and the bonds of family that hurt each other as it becomes increasingly impossible to talk across the lines drawn between them. 

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