Friday, February 20, 2015

'Housekeeping' by Marilynne Robinson

20 February 2015

I've been reading Marilynne Robinson's 1980 novel 'Housekeeping' (as an unabridged audio book narrated by Becket Royce). 'Housekeeping' is widely regarded as a modern American classic, which Robinson followed more than twenty years later with the highly-acclaimed Gilead trilogy of novels. It's the tale of a family living in the remote Idaho town of Fingerbone. The domestic setting and gentle pace reminded me of the books of Anne Tyler. 'Housekeeping' is narrated by Ruth, one of two young girls who are cared for by a succession of family members after their mother's suicide. The writing very cleverly gives the impression of a girl emerging from the fuzzy confusion of childhood into a world that gradually crystallises as she approaches adulthood. At first I was not clear which of the sisters was the elder – for a while I wondered whether they might be twins – but as they grow older and more distinct from each other, it becomes very clear which is the younger sibling. This gently confusing, non-linear narrative feels initially a little hard to follow but you soon realise that this is not a book that requires you to pay attention to an intricate plot. There is very little plot in 'Housekeeping' – the most dramatic events (a train plunging off a bridge into the lake, a car driving into the lake) happen off-stage or before the start of the narrative. This is a novel that focusses on characters and family relationships. It's beautifully written – I found myself frequently stopping to note the most lovely phrases. Of Bernice, an elderly neighbour who wears an excessive amount of make-up, we are told “she was an old woman but she managed to look like a young woman with a ravaging disease”. When floods swept the town “the library was flooded to a depth of three shelves, creating vast gaps in the Dewey Decimal system”. Floods are a recurring theme of the novel, as are the call of the railroad and a transient life. The tone of Ruth's narrative is unexcitable, matter-of-fact, taking the eccentricities of others in her stride. 'Housekeeping' washes over the reader like a gentle, benevolent flood.



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