Marilynne Robinson: Housekeeping

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The latest addition to my website is Marilynne Robinson‘s Housekeeping. This is, of course, a book I should have read years ago but, with her new book just out, now was the time to do it. Apart from the fact, that this is one of the foremost US novels of the latter part of the twentieth century, there is another reason why I should have read it. Unusually, I know the exact date I bought this novel – 3 February 1981. The reason I know this is that I bought it when she gave a talk and had a book signing. (My copy has a dedication to me and is signed by Robinson, from that date). Apparently, I took notes about her talk as, when I finally came to read this book this week, I found inside my copy the notes I took, with date, of her talk. She said that she had written the book straight off, with only a few reference points, with no structure and no idea of the ending while she was writing it. She wrote it in longhand and her husband typed it. There was only one draft. Her main influences were, she said, the early US writers such as Thoreau, Melville and Emily Dickinson as well as Dickens. She said that she did not like contemporary US writing and that she was not in the mainstream of the modern US novel but more of the older US novel. Before writing this novel, she had little experience of writing, though had wanted to be a writer since the age of fifteen. She had written poetry at high school but it was, she said, bad. She did major in US literature and was taught by John Hawkes, though she avoided reading his work till later to avoid being influenced by him. Her Ph. D. was on Shakespeare. She concluded by saying that she found the whole experience of being a published novelist as a bit unreal

The book itself concerns an eccentric family that live in Fingerbone, a small town in the Far West of the US, built on a lake that was assumed to have disappeared but reappears every now and then to flood the houses. The story is told by Ruth, a teenage girl. Her grandfather had been killed when a train derailed and sank in the lake. Her grandmother brought up her three daughters, by then teenagers. All three left the same year, one to go as a missionary to China, one, Helen, who became the mother of Ruth and her younger sister, Lucille, and one, Sylvie, who married but had no children. Helen and her husband live in Seattle but the husband disappears, never to be heard of again. One day, Helen returns to Fingerbone with her daughters, leaves them on her mother’s doorstep and then proceeds to drive her borrowed car into the lake, killing herself. The girls are brought up first by their grandmother, then, when she dies, by her grandmother’s two unmarried sisters-in-law and, finally, by their aunt, Sylvie, who returns without her husband, to look after her nieces. Sylvie shows herself to be somewhat eccentric and this eccentricity increases, though not to a dangerous point. At first the two sisters tolerate their aunt’s strange (to them) behaviour but gradually, Lucille finds this behaviour unacceptable, though Ruth accepts it and grudgingly welcomes it. However, things start getting more and more difficult and the benign local sheriff feels that he has to intervene. This is a superb book about eccentricity and being different, about loneliness, about our relationship to nature and about transience and impermanence. It is wonderfully written and is rightfully considered one of the best US novels of the latter part of the twentieth century.

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