Housekeeping. by Marilynne Robinson
You need to wear a warm coat to read Marilynne’s novel set in the freezing town of Fingerbone in Idaho as the narrator Ruthie describes the chill climate and its effects on its inhabitants, her, her sister Lucille and Sylvie their aunt in numbing detail. It’s a melancholy read but also rich in reflection and insight as Ruthie ponders on the connections between the elements, emotions and her attitudes to life and people. It’s filled with symbolism suggesting collapsed houses, floods, heavy snow decaying towns all reflect the potential for human failings in the face of life’s struggles. But cheer up as there’s dark humour as well when the sisters bunk off school and the sheriff attempts to adopt Ruthie.
The reviews concentrate on describing the story as “haunting” and “poetic” and using “Biblical language” and of the transient nature of the relationships between the female characters. All true, but at the core of Housekeeping is mental health and its effects on a family.
As Helen fails to cope with the disappearance of Reginald who deserts her she ends up struggling to make things work and finally commits suicide leaving her two daughters Ruthie and Lucille at the mercy of their grandmother and a succession of relatives including Sylvie who are all incapable of looking after them. Society also fails them although Lucille manages to extract herself from the chaotic life that Sylvie constructs and leaves her sister and aunt for a more normal family in Fingerbone.
Things we learn from Housekeeping: it’s not about housekeeping but rather how not to keep a house as Sylvie’s hoarding instincts eventually result in the house being burnt to the ground.
Housekeeping magazine can be used to swat out a small fire and you can feed a family of 17 on a broth made from fir needles, bits of hair and finger nails and shoe leather.
Illegally jumping on railcars will bring the wrath of your local community on you, and dress making is very frustrating and when it won’t work chuck your attempt in the fire. Plus sitting by the edge of a lake all day is preferable to going to school. Brrr. So put on a coat, or sit by a fire and prepare for Robinson’s enjoyable and vividly atmospheric journey into Ruthie’s rags to rags not-coming-of-age story.
Harry Mottram. Four stars