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Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson

February 10, 2013 27 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.

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