Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson
“To crave and to have are as like as a thing and its shadow.”
“Housekeeping” is an intriguing title for a book centering on loss, since loss is the opposite of what we all want/need, which is to have, i.e. to keep. Contrasts are major players in this novel, with mentions of and metaphors about such things as keeping/losing, night/day, dark/light, dreaming/consciousness, fitting in/drifting off, alive/dead, windows/mirrors, snow/ice/water appearing again and again. What Robinson really seems interested in is the space between the dichotomies – the moments when night passes into day, the way, at night, glass can be both a mirror and a window, depending on which side you’re on, ghosts, water’s passage from solid to liquid to gas. As one might guess, bridges play an important role here.
The text follows Ruthie and Lucille as they grow up in their grandmother’s house in the small (Western Idaho?) town of Fingerbone, their mother having died by driving her (borrowed) car into the same lake that had long ago claimed her own father when the train he was working on fell off the side of the bridge. By contrasting the affect of these events on the two sisters, Robinson draws our attention to the differences between people. Some, like Lucille, can move on from tragedy. Others, like Ruthie and her aunt Sylvie, seem unable to recover and pass through to the other side of pain. Having landed on neither the having nor accepting shore of loss, they are left lingering between before and after. It’s as if, over the course of the book, loss seeps into these fragile (yet physically hearty) women’s souls, as dew through blankets left overnight on a covered porch.
Despite the pervasively melancholy mood of the book, the message here is one of compassion. After all, where does day end and night begin? How far can one deviate from societal norms and still be accepted by their community? Perhaps we are not troubled by these subtleties but, this book reminds us, there are those among us who are, and society labels them: crazy, tramp, derelict, hobo, drifter. And yet maybe theirs is just another way of dealing with the world’s cruel realities. Instead of standing in stark defiance against the things they can neither accept nor change, Ruthie and Sylvie allow themselves to blend into them further, so that if not the world, at least they become nearly invisible. As eventual transients, Ruthie and Sylvie cannot keep a house; instead they fall naturally into a life of constant moving, yet never arriving. Ambiguity in all its forms is the essence of the text; no answers, no life philosophies, no edicts can be found here, only keen, focused, compassionate, beautiful observation.
I don’t know what Housekeeping means. But I do know that there is little more pleasurable in this world than a book that leaves one with a sense of wonder, and a new set of questions; Housekeeping did that for me. It’s the kind of book you want to talk to others about. Have you read it? What did you think?