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Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson

February 10, 2013 Leave a comment Go to comments

Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson. 1980. French title: La maison dans la dérive.

The people of Fingerbone and its environs were very much given to murder. And it seemed that for every pitiable crime there was an appalling accident. What with the lake and the railroads, and what with blizzards and floods and barn fires and forest fires and the general availability of shotguns and bear traps and homemade liquor and dynamite, what with the prevalence of loneliness and religion and the rages and ecstasies they induce, and the closeness of families, violence was inevitable.

Robinson_HousekeepingAren’t you already packing a suitcase, wanting to visit this cheerful place right away? This is where Housekeeping is set. And it is a strange story. It’s a first person narrative and we see the events through Ruthie’s eyes. She relates her childhood and adolescence in the little town of Fingerbone, somewhere in Idaho. Her grand-father disappeared in the lake close to town. He used to work for the railroad and one train left the rails and fell into the lake. The grand-father died in the accident, along with all the people who were on the train.

He was married to Ruthie’s grand-mother who raised her two girls Helen and Sylvie on her own. Their childhood and adolescence was quiet. They both left home almost at the same time rather unexpectedly. They never really came back, even to see their mother. Helen got married and Sylvie as well. Both marriages were failures, the men disappeared. For Helen, her husband had the time to father two daughters before leaving her behind. This is where Ruthie and Lucille come from.

Ruthie relates how her mother drove them to Fingerbone one day and then committed suicide by launching her car in the lake. The two girls stayed with their grand-mother until she died. Then two great-aunts moved in temporarily until they tracked down Sylvie and ask her to come home and take care of the children. Do the housekeeping.

The main part of the book relates how the situation goes downhill from there. Sylvie is described as a transcient, a drifter. The word hobo isn’t used for her but she’s a wanderer and from the very start, Ruthie is afraid that she leaves too.

It’s a very strange book, I have a hard time writing about it. I was uncomfortable, bored, unable to know where the writer wanted to lead us. I had the impression to be kept in a literary fog. I couldn’t figure out at what time it was happening. It could have been anytime from 1850s to now. OK, the fact that Helen drives a car narrows a bit the period and I noticed somewhere near the end that Lucille was wearing a sweatshirt, jeans and sneakers. So it was post 1960s. But without these details, I was clueless.

The atmosphere is eerie like in Le Grand Meaulnes by Alain Fournier, smothering like in Les Ames grises by Philippe Claudel. The characters spend a lot of time in the woods, near the lake and nature is never inviting. It’s cold, windy, snowy, wet and muddy. Winters are very long. The lake is a sort of character in himself, like an ogre who has swallowed the grand-father and Helen. This lake eats people and Ruthie speaks about these souls wandering in the lake’s surroundings. There were a lot of descriptions of the wilderness around Fingerbone and all this greenery weighed on my reading.

Sylvie is clearly unbalanced, unable to take care of the children, physically and emotionally. She has no schedule, wanders at night, doesn’t cook diner. She accepts that the girls don’t go to school. She doesn’t serve as a guiding light to these two girls. While Lucille is resilient and decides to leave the house and live with a neighbor to save herself, Ruthie stays there and becomes more and more like Sylvie.

Ruthie is an unreliable narrator. She describes her life as if it were normal to live in a house crowded with old newspapers, walls of empty cans and broken windows. The grand-mother’s house is also a character, like a strange house in a fairy-tale. The grand-father built it himself, so it’s not very square. It’s dirty, old and full of memories. Housekeeping is the title of the book but I like the French translation better, La maison dans la dérive. It’s a strange phrase in French. It means the house in the drift. That’s exactly how it is. At the same time, the house is an anchor, the place they come back to, that prevents them from leaving Fingerbone. The house is the link between the past and their present. It hosts the ghosts from the past, the grand-father as a young man, Helen when she was a child and an adolescent, the grand-mother.

I felt ill-at-ease when I read Housekeeping and I didn’t care about the characters. They never touched me. I didn’t like the biblical references; that’s always a put-off for me. Perhaps they were there to enforce the atmosphere of this strange town:

For if Fingerbone was remarkable for anything besides loneliness and murder, it was for religious zeal of the purest and rarest kind. There were, in fact, several churches whose visions of sin and salvation were so ecstatic, and so nearly identical, that the superiority of one church over another could be argued only in terms of good works.

Something was chilling and I wanted to stay away from the book, it’s only 200 pages but it took me ages to read it because I didn’t want to go back to this unhealthy atmosphere after a day at work.

Robinson’s style is very good, very literary and elaborate. The fog and the smothering were in the writing too: not enough dialogues, long paragraphs of descriptions, long sentences with lots of commas, which is strange for an English text. The pages were stifling to look at, without the visual air brought by paragraphs and Ruthie’s long monologue seemed endless and trapped me.

I knew the bridge well. It began above the shore, some thirty feet from the edge of the water. I knew the look of its rusted bolts and tarred pilings. The structure was crude, seen from close up, though from any distance its length and the vastness of the lake made it seem fragile and attenuated. Now, in the moonlight, it loomed above us and was very black, as black as charred wood. Of course, among all these pilings and girders the waves slipped and slapped and trickled, insistent, intimate, insinuating, proprietary as rodents in a dark house.

Strange style, isn’t it? I wonder if she always writes like this or if it’s special for this story.

I should have felt something for Ruthie and Lucille, losing their beloved ones like this. It’s so much pain to take. And that’s one of the aspects of the book. The characters try to deal with the successive losses in their lives, a mother, a sister, a grand-mother. The ghosts from the past hover over them, they don’t manage to move on and they feel this presence all the time. At least Sylvie and Ruthie do.

The whole book was that uncanny and that kind of weird doesn’t agree with me. This is one of the two books Guy chose for Humbook exchange event last Christmas. I’d never hear of this writer before. I’m glad I read it, but sorry Guy, I can’t say I liked it. Has anyone read it? I’d like to hear someone else’s opinion since I really found it chilling. Creepy.

  1. February 10, 2013 at 11:52 pm

    I have not read this. I tend to like uncanny and unusual stories some of the things that you did not like about this work make it at least sound interesting. On the other hand characters that are difficult to care about really can put a damper on a book for me.


    • February 10, 2013 at 11:55 pm

      The ratings on Goodreads are either 2 stars or 5 stars: the book doesn’t leave indifferent.

      It’s a good book but it didn’t work for me.


      • February 11, 2013 at 12:44 am

        I read it after watching the film. Sorry you didn’t like it as it is torture to read something you’d rather avoid. Better luck with the other pick


        • February 11, 2013 at 12:59 am

          She’s a good writer.

          What did you like so much about it? I find it disturbing.


        • February 11, 2013 at 9:32 pm

          Don’t worry about it.
          However, I saw you gave it 5 stars on Goodreads and I’m a bit surprised. I wouldn’t have imagined you loving this book. What did you like about it?

          It reminds me of a recent review you wrote about a book with lots of descriptions of woods and greenery. I remember writing it would put me off and someone else said the same. Are the books alike? (sorry, I don’t remember the title)


  2. February 11, 2013 at 1:43 am

    Given the extent to which it creeped you out it sounds extremely well written. I can see how it would divide opinion.

    I’m not familiar with her work. Fingerbone, even the name is creepy. It sounds like a sort of literary horror fiction. Great cover too. I may look further into it, since I do read some horror. I’ve heard of the author, but not read her and don’t know her work so I’ve no idea if this is her normal style or a choice for this book. Hopefully someone else can answer that question in the comments.


    • February 11, 2013 at 6:50 am

      No doubt, it’s a good book.
      I also thought that Fingerbone was a creepy name.
      I don’t know if it qualifies for “horror” fiction, you know I’m not good with genres.
      I’m curious to read other reactions to it. I exchanged a few tweets with Pykk about it and he found it eerie, chilling but well written too.


    • February 11, 2013 at 8:02 am

      Housekeeping was her first piece of fiction and she’s only written two others, Gilead and Home. The other two are less overtly eerie than Housekeeping — there’s the sense that something is not right, but this uncanny restlessness doesn’t possess the whole scenery of the novel, the way it does in the first book. The second book pretends to be a letter written by an elderly man to his young son. The third book is a third-person narrative set in the same town as book two. Neither of them are like Housekeeping. Less Gothic.


      • February 11, 2013 at 9:15 pm

        Thanks for this.
        I wondered if her style was always like this. Restlessness, that’s the word. It applies to the dead whose bodies are in the lake and have no proper grave, it applies to Sylvie who can’t settle down and it applies to Ruthie’s disquiet.

        I think this book is very American too, full of American myths, at least seen from Europe: the grand-father who built his wooden house, the untamed nature that claims humans, the nights in the woods, the references to the Bible.


  3. February 11, 2013 at 8:05 am

    I’ve read her Gilead and really didn’t like it and I got this one too. The way you describe it, so eerie and creepy, I have a feeling I will like it very much. I’m actually tempted to go and grab the book right now. I think the Cornflower Book Club read this last year and they were not too keen on it. Can’t remember what Litlove said (she did read along), someone found the writing too forced, too artificial.


    • February 11, 2013 at 9:16 pm

      I was thinking you might like it. I’d like to read your review.
      I’ll check Litlove’s review, thanks for the tip.


  4. leroyhunter
    February 11, 2013 at 3:35 pm

    I haven’t read her, but I’m aware she has a huge reputation. I didn’t realise her stuff was creepy or Gothic as Pykk puts it. Interesting.

    Few things worse than having to come back to a book you dread though!


    • February 11, 2013 at 9:20 pm

      I suppose the Pulitzer prize helped her reputation. I don’t remember her winning it, it was one of those no-reading years.

      It probably deserves to be read in several sittings, to get caught by the atmosphere and the style. It takes a bit of time to enter her language. I thought it was a bit difficult for me, which doesn’t help at night after work. It must be easy to translate into French though.


  5. Vishy
    February 11, 2013 at 5:23 pm

    Interesting review of an interesting book, Emma! I love that picture on the cover – it depicts the central theme of the book beautifully. I love the French translation of the title too. I liked what you said about Marilynne Robinson’s prose – that it was literary and the book had long sentences with lots of commas and less dialogue. Maybe she was inspired by Proust 🙂 I remember reading somewhere that either this or ‘Gilead’ won the Pulitzer prize. Thanks for this beautiful review.


    • February 11, 2013 at 9:23 pm

      The cover is beautiful indeed. For once, it’s not a part of a woman’s body. Have you noticed how many covers involve a woman’s legs, a woman applying make-up, a woman’s back…
      This train is where everything started. It’s the end of the grand-father’s life and the symbol of Sylvie’s restlessness.

      Her prose isn’t like Proust’s or James’s.


  6. February 11, 2013 at 6:05 pm

    I loved Housekeeping. It took twenty years for her to follow it with Gilead which won the Pulitzer Prize. This was then followed by Home which told the story of Gilead from a different perspective.
    @Caroline – A lot of people who are not keen on Gilead like Housekeeping, I’ve noticed.
    The closest thing between Housekeeping and the later books are the characters of Jack and Sylvie – two drifters who return to their home place but never belong. The omnipresence of religion is also a link, although it is far more explicit in the later works.
    ***Blurb warning*** – I think Robinson is one of the greatest writers currently at work. She is a supreme stylist and deals with profound and often unsettling issues.


    • February 11, 2013 at 9:27 pm

      Well, it didn’t speak to me but I agree, she writes well but sometimes I think her style is a bit heavy. Or is it because English isn’t my native language? It was challenging.

      All this rain, this sadness weighed on me. It was like Ruthie and Sylvie were following their lives instead of living them. I’m not very keen on passive characters and that probably didn’t help either.

      It’s nice to read your comment, it balances all my negativity.


  7. February 11, 2013 at 7:27 pm

    I have tghis on my tbr but recently saw the film it looks very strange story if the film was anything to go by ,all the best stu


    • February 11, 2013 at 9:28 pm

      You have to ask Guy about the film, he’s watched it too and read the book after.


  8. February 15, 2013 at 11:07 am

    I have tried to like Marilynne Robinson but I find her writing too – “precious” is a word I would use – she tries too hard to write beautifully and the result is a little “forced” (I hope these words get the idea across). It’s interesting that you compare this one to Alain Fournier (incidentally I shall be visiting his home town this year with my wife).

    When I reviewed her book “Home” I wrote “The fact remains that as with Gilead, these people are basically dull, with little knowledge of the world beyond their small town Christian community and have attitudes which caused this reader at least to want to fling open the windows and let some life in”. I think I would feel that same about this book.


    • February 16, 2013 at 7:12 pm

      I can understand why you thought her writing “precious”. Perhaps it’s easier for you to judge as you’re a native English speaker. I thought it was rather difficult to follow and the constant use of strings of words or phrases sounded odd in English. At least to me.


      • February 18, 2013 at 9:24 pm

        It is interesting that you found it “odd” – I agree with you but some people find that sort of writing to be “poetic” – it sounds a little pretentious to me


        • February 18, 2013 at 9:54 pm

          I find it odd for a writer who writes in English. Usually you can find that kind of long sentences with commas and lots of adjectives in French books.


  9. November 25, 2015 at 9:39 pm

    It is now available in paperback in French and the title is : La maison de Noé. Noah’s House: perfect title for this book where they seem constantly surrounded by water and rain.


  10. April 18, 2017 at 1:27 am

    It’s fascinating to see that your review and mine both attract so much conversation about this book. I see that you called it strange too, and that is a word that neither of us often use in our reviews…


  1. April 18, 2017 at 1:29 am
  2. September 15, 2021 at 9:23 am
  3. October 30, 2022 at 5:00 pm

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