Housekeeping September 2, 2015

The TLS reviewer is supposed to be reviewing Marilynne Robinson’s Lila, but along the way gives a lovely description of what makes Robinson’s first novel, Housekeeping, an enduring treasure:

“Grave without being heavy, Housekeeping remains Robinson’s most lyrically beautiful book. The text weaves together gothic tropes, mystic invocations of Scripture, and rapturous accounts of the Idaho wilderness, as well as the various pains and confinements of teenage girls growing up in the middle of nowhere. Fingerbone, the town the sisters inhabit, is said to be ‘chastened by an outsized landscape and extravagant weather, and chastened again by an awareness that the whole of human history had occurred elsewhere.’ . . . 

“From the internal evidence, one could reasonably suppose that the story is set somewhere in the early-to-mid 1950s, but a precise date is never given. Indeed, for the most part, Housekeeping reads like an uncannily realistic piece of folklore—a tale that doesn’t quite belong to the normal course of time, full of solemn omens and proclamations. ‘If one is lost on the water, any hill is Ararat,’ declares Ruth. ‘And below is always the accumulated past, which vanishes but does not vanish, which perishes and remains.’ In the hands of a less talented artist, this mixture of high-wattage prose and extreme spiritual earnestness could fall flat. What protects Housekeeping from bathos, though, is how painfully exact it is about the types of human sorrow it has in mind—namely, the unclosing wounds of loss, and the sense in which there is not a home on earth that isn’t haunted.”

“What are all these fragments for, if not to be knit up finally?” That question from Housekeeping haunts Robinson’s other novels, and is a clue to the Robinson’s depiction of “a longing for wholeness and repair that has no answer in this world.”

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