I've recently finished reading Marilynne Robinson's Housekeeping, the first of her three novels, which I hadn’t got round to reading before. Like the other two that follow, it’s extraordinary in detail, vivid in imagination, and seemingly plotless. It's surprisingly readable, and superbly written.
At least that was my impression before I got to the end of it.
My enthusiasm for it waned a little towards the end because, unlike the other two books Robinson has written, this one ultimately goes nowhere. It’s a long sad story of a family broken first by the tragic death of the grandfather in a train accident, then the departure of one of his three daughters to the mission field – she’s never heard of again – and then the suicide of the mother of the two girls (the grandchildren) who are the focus of most of the book.
The lake near the town of Fingerbone plays a huge part in the story, but there are times when the whole metaphorical approach to storytelling just about takes over, and not a great deal actually happens. By the end of the book, the younger sister has gone off to the ‘world’, you might say; she’s making something of herself even though what she’s making doesn’t seem to be much approved of by her sister or aunt. The aunt is a drifter who finds it hard to settle anywhere. That she stays as long as she does, caring for her two nieces, is quite something, but by the end of the book she’s taken off again, this time with the remaining niece, the one who’s the book’s narrator. And their lives seem to go nowhere. At least the drifting character in the other two books has something to say for himself when he appears, and has actually done something, acted in his life. Housekeeping is about women (there’s hardly a male in sight) who can’t get up and take action. They’re seemingly so overwhelmed by the tragedy that took place decades ago that they just drift through life as well as through the geography of the planet. Quite why they do this is never explained in so many words; we get metaphors for it, but not much clarification. Perhaps the book, like the others, needs a re-reading to get to grips with what it’s about, because story is almost what it isn’t about. That’s not to say there are no stories. The remaining aunt offers a great number of somewhat inconsequential stories – they never seem to be terribly relevant to anything, and none of them are very straightforward. And it’s not to say there’s no action in the book at all. Towards the end the aunt and niece try to burn the house down (there’ll be no ‘housekeeping’ after this) but are as unsuccessful at this as they are about pretty much everything else they do together. I don’t think we’re much meant to admire the other sister who goes off and gets on with life, but at least she does do something.
Robinson's every word is carefully chosen; nothing is out of place, and there's a philosophical thinking under her writing that's rare in storytellers. Perhaps the narrator explains a little too much - when I say 'explains' I mean that she philosophises just a bit more than necessary. For someone who's willing to go drifting and do nothing with her life she still thinks very deeply. The character of the narrator is elusive in some ways; she's nowhere near as sharply drawn as the narrators of the other two novels. She doesn't interact much; she reacts, but it's still a very passive reaction. There's little that she does (especially as she grows older) that's initiated by her. And her aunt: what does she do all day, except dream, perhaps. She's also an unfocused character, almost a ghost. She has no connection with anyone in the town and seemingly is happy to stay in the house day in and day out, or to be on her own out in the country that surrounds Fingerbone, or on the lake.
The book is something of a mystery: what is the story that's being told here? There are so many unanswered questions that after reading the book you feel as though you've never had any grip on it. It's not unmemorable - Robinson creates a very particular world - but it seems to be inhabited by people who've got no grip on life themselves.