If I were to describe Marilynne Robinson’s storytelling in one word, that word would be compassionate. Whether she’s writing about a old minister contemplating death, a middle-aged woman contemplating life, a prodigal child, a judgmental parent, old ladies concerned with their own comfort, or a vagabond drifter, she manages to draw out the qualities that make these people worthy of our concern.
This compassion is evident when we first meet Lily and Nona, the two great-aunts who come to take care of Ruth and Lillian, the main characters in Housekeeping, after the death of their grandmother (who has cared for them since their mother’s death):
Their alarm was evident from the first, in the nervous flutter with which they searched their bags and pockets for the little present they had brought (it was a large box of cough drops—a confection they considered both tasty and salubrious). Lily and Nona both had light blue hair and black coats with shiny black beads in intricate patterns on the lapels. Their thick bodies pitched forward from the hips, and their arms and ankles were plump. They were, though maiden ladies, of a buxomly maternal appearance that contrasted oddly with their brusque, unpracticed pats and kisses.
Lily and Nona are minor characters, but even in this single paragraph, we learn a lot about them. They’re not at all prepared to deal with children, for one thing. They like things to be nice, given the patterns and beads on their coats. And even though their short stint as parental figures is doomed, they mean well, as evidenced by the cough drops. When they soon leave Ruth and Lillian in the hands of the girls’ aunt Sylvie—possibly an even less capable parent—I couldn’t be angry with them because I recalled that nervous flutter and those unpracticed pats. They were out of their depth, and Sylvie was their one way out.
Ruth, the narrator of Housekeeping, looks back on all the people around her with kindness, but also with a sense of detachment. This is very much a book about detached people. Even the little town of Fingerbone, where the novel is set, is detached from the rest of the world. The only sign of the outside world is the train that comes through town and the drifters that sometimes appear on it.
But Ruth—and Fingerbone—cannot evade history. The lake is filled with bodies of dead ancestors. Ruth’s grandfather is down there, along with all the passengers on the train that plunged off the bridge and fell to unreachable depths. Ruth’s mother is there, too. These lost people loom larger for Ruth—and perhaps Sylvie—than any of their neighbors do. Somehow in dying, they’ve become more alive.
It’s no accident either that these bodies are at the bottom of a lake. Housekeeping is awash in water imagery; water is both a source of life and death. This resonated deeply with me because I grew up Baptist, and in many Baptist churches, baptisms are accompanied by the phrase, “buried with Christ in baptism, risen to walk in newness of life.” Death—life. I thought of that when Ruth contemplated what would happen if a boat she and Sylvie took across the lake were to capsize:
Say that the water and I bore the rowboat down to the bottom, and I, miraculously, monstrously, drank water into all my pores until the last black cranny of my brain was a trickle, a spillet. And given that it is in the nature of water to fill and force to repletion and bursting, my skull would bulge preposterously and my back would hunch against the sky and my vastness would press my cheek hard and immovably against my knee. Then, presumably, would come parturition in some form, though my first birth hardly deserved that name, and why should I hope for more from the second? The only true birth would be a final one, which would free us from watery darkness and the thought of watery darkness, but could such a birth be imagined?
Note all the contrasts here: miraculously and monstrously, repletion and bursting, a bulging skull and a body folded in upon itself, death and birth.
The whole book is filled with contrasts. Ruth and Lillian are also contrasts, with Ruth thinking of the dead and Lillian concerned with fitting in among the living. The great aunts who want never to leave their home in Spokane, the younger aunt who never makes herself at home anywhere. The driving question of the novel, if there is one, is which contrasting path Ruth herself will choose, and Robinson’s storytelling is such that the most sensible path is not necessarily the one that makes the most sense for her characters.
Housekeeping is a short book, but it’s not a quick read. Robinson’s language is extraordinary, and I found it even more striking here than I did in Home and Gilead. (I think the other two were so close to the bone when it came to their themes that I could hardly think about the language.) The story is not one that will keep you on tenterhooks, although I was interested in the characters. The prose actually is the great draw. Slow reading is worth it. Give yourself time. Absorb it.
After my own languid reading of Housekeeping, with a heavy sigh, I turned the last page and began hoping that Marilynne Robinson is at work on her next novel so that my wait will not be as long as that of Housekeeping‘s first readers, who had to wait 24 years for her to write Gilead. I take heart in the fact that there was only a four-year gap between Gilead and Home, but I suspect that the short gap is attributable to the fact that those two novels were in the same world and involved the same characters. And so I expect a long wait, but hope for a short one, or at least as short a wait as it will take for Robinson to produce such fine writing and such remarkable characters. I’d rather have a few works of great beauty from her than a stack of mediocrities.