Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson – a review
I remember Sylvie walking through the house with a scarf tied around her hair, carrying a broom. Yet this was the time that leaves began to gather in the corners. They were leaves that had been through the winter, some of them worn to a net of veins . . .
She had to have been aware of them because every time a door was opened anywhere in the house there was a sound from all the corners of lifting and alighting. I noticed that the leaves would be lifted up by something that came before the wind, they would tack against some impalpable movement of air several seconds before the wind was heard in the trees. Thus finely did our house become attuned to the orchard and to the particularities of weather, even in the first days of Sylvie’s housekeeping. Thus did she begin by littles and perhaps unawares to ready it for wasps and bats and barn swallows. Sylvie talked a great deal about housekeeping. She soaked all the tea towels for a number of weeks in a tub of water and bleach. She emptied several cupboards and left them open to air, and once she washed half the kitchen ceiling and a door. Sylvie believed in stern solvents, and most of all in air. It was for the sake of air that she opened doors and windows, though it was probably through forgetfulness that she left them open. It was for the sake of air that on one early splendid day she wrestled my grandmother’s plum-coloured davenport into the front yard, where it remained until it weathered pink.
This is a beautifully written and realised novel. The story of two sisters, Ruth and Lucille, who are brought up by their grandmother, and when she dies, by her two sisters-in-law, the misses Lily and Nona Foster, and when they flee, by their mother’s sister, Sylvia Fisher (she seldom removed her coat, and every story she told had to do with a train or a bus station). In the earlier part of the novel Ruth and Lucille do everything together, sometimes they, and we, the readers, suspect that they are a single being. But as is often the way of the world, they gradually grow apart, driven by different standards and needs and desires.
For a novel, set in America’s northwest, somewhere in Idaho, a novel which is essentially about loss, loneliness and transience, Housekeeping is exceptionally subtle. While being terribly sad it is also quietly humorous, and throughout, the language, down to the choice of single words, is never less than remarkable. This is no mean task, but handled consciously, it only occasionally veers into over-writing. But when this happens the author immediately pulls it back again.
This is a first novel, published in 1981. I can’t think how I missed it for so long. It portrays the impermanence of our lives and of all the things that surround us. It captures all of our anxieties and failures and beauty and happiness, and our struggle to hang on to what can never be owned. I would recommend that you go out and get a copy straight away.