Thursday, January 28, 2010

Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson

Ruth Stone is a beautiful young woman. By that, I do not mean physical beauty – I’m not sure her appearance is even described in any detail – but in her personality, her humanity. She represents all that is vulnerable, that is hopeful, that is fearful in each of us and all of us. She represents the individual. She represents life.

Ruth and her sister Lucille live in the small western town of Fingerbone, on the edge of the Fingerbone Lake. Their early life is disrupted by the death of their mother, following which they are brought up by their grandmother who, despite the generational gap, tries to instil some normality in the girls’ lives. She dies, however, and the girls are subsequently looked after by their great-aunts, Lily and Nona, a pair of fatalistic old maidens who are quite unsuited to bringing up two young girls. The girls quietly rebel, missing school more often than they attend and living their own lives of wild freedom entirely apart from the rest of Fingerbone, even their peers - a friendless existence that comprises just the two of them. In despair, Lily and Nona try to contact the girls’ aunt, their mother’s sister, Sylvie, a black sheep who left home very young and has lived a nomadic existence riding trains from somewhere to nowhere, making casual acquaintances and living lightly. Against the odds, Sylvie responds to their entreaty and returns to the old family home in Fingerbone. She agrees to take over the upkeep of the girls, much to the relief of Lily and Nona, who retreat to the safety of their previous, structured existence back in Washington state. Thus, the girls are left in the care of yet another housekeeper, the quixotic and unpredictable Sylvie. Her approach to the task is unconventional, to say the least, and it gradually becomes clear that her behaviour is far from what passes for normal in old-fashioned Fingerbone.

And so the girls’ lives twist once more. For Lucille this proves a turning point. She is alienated by the lack of order in Sylvie’s chaotic existence. She returns to school and concentrates on her studies, she breaks the close bond with Ruth and makes new friendships; ultimately, she is repelled entirely by Sylvie’s lifestyle and leaves home altogether, staying instead with her home economics teacher. She chooses convention. Now Ruth is alone with Sylvie, and a curious, though inevitable bonding begins. Ruth, a sensitive child still affected by the death of her mother, is drawn to the ethereality of her aunt, to her free-spiritedness, her unwillingness to be bound by conventions. Although Ruth, like Lucille, has returned to school, she agrees to miss an exam in order to accompany Sylvie on a trip to the lake and thus we reach the turning point of the novel, in which Ruth and her aunt make decisions which will shape their lives forever.

is an extraordinary novel, haunting and humane, with a quiet depth which resonates more powerfully for its lack of overblown rhetoric or fanciful mythography. On the contrary, with her clear, crystalline prose and pitch-perfect symbolism, Marilynne Robinson creates characters who are wholly believable and a situation which is at once desperate and beautiful: perhaps what unfolds is not best for either Sylvie or Ruth, but who would deny them the opportunity to experience it? Who would wish to shackle these free spirits or diminish their glow? Who would make them live a life more ordinary?

The locale of the novel is essential to its understanding. It takes place around the lake after which the town of Fingerbone is named. There is something primordial about it. It is home to the dead – countless unfortunates reside within it, including the girls’ grandfather and mother, and yet, because everything in Housekeeping is placed in opposition to something else – it is also the bringer of life, water, the sustenance that all existence requires. So we have water and land, death and life, and there is no neat division between them. Thus, the lake floods the town every year and things which people might wish to keep separate are comingled – life in death, death in life, order through chaos.

In this way, then, Ruth’s early life is dominated by death and water and, in particular, the unfortunate confluence of the two. Her grandfather dies in an accident when his train plunges from a bridge into the lake. Years later, her mother commits suicide by driving into the same lake. Water suffuses the novel, from the flood that engulfs the family house for days on end to a night Ruth and Sylvie, spend adrift on the lake in a small rowing boat. Water, of course, is the most inconstant of materials, eternally fluid, kinetic, permanently impermanent. And such, of course, is the nature of human interaction, particularly for outsiders like Ruth and Sylvie, people with one foot in reality and another somewhere else, somewhere simultaneously internal and exterior, people who reside at once in their heads and in some otherworld.

The central metaphor of the novel is that of housekeeping – the ways in which human beings try to exert control over nature and their external surroundings, imposing order, conformity. At the same time it represents the ways in which communities bind together through convention and usage. Grandmother Sylvia responds to her new task of bringing up the girls by imposing a routine of housekeeping, rigid and conservative like the community of Fingerbone in which they reside: controlling nature, conforming to society. It is futile: nature cannot be controlled, nor can the human spirit be tramelled against its wishes. When she dies and the free spirit Sylvie takes over the housekeeping, she throws open the windows to the elements. Not long after, floods symbolically claim the lower floor of the house while Sylvie and the girls retreat to the upper levels. Sylvie hoards tins and papers instead of cleaning and tidying, and the house turns into a calamitous mess. All the while she shuns the Fingerbone community, making no friends, speaking to no-one, living entirely outside their norms. It cannot last. The community turn against her, accuse her of being unfit to bring up Ruth. Thus, the metaphor of housekeeping, as elucidated by first the grandmother and then Sylvie, stands for doomed defiance of both nature and civilisation, of the impossibility of taming the chaos of the cosmos or escaping the strictures of community.

Nonetheless this is an upbeat book and its ending offers hope. Ruth is the heroine of the novel, and so is Sylvie, and the pair of them, heroines, forge a pact that is as uplifting as it is foolish, and quite, quite beautiful.


Mark said...

This novel has merged in my mind with Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich, so that I cannot quite separate June and Sylvie in my mind.

Tom Conoboy said...

I don't know the Erdrich. Is it similar material?

Funnily enough, Sylvie is strongly reminding of someone else, but I cannot think who it is. It might even be a real person and not a literary character, but the actual identity is maddeningly elusive.

Mark said...

Not really. But there are two very similar characters, and there's a similar sense of freedom and constriction, I suppose. I love that book--Love Medicine--though so far it's the only thing I've like by her.

Reader2 said...

Wonderful review! This is one of my favorite novels to wade through. The 1988 Columbia Pictures screen adaptation of the same title is directed by Bill Forsyth and is a treat to view. Christine Lahti's performance as Sylvie is on target. So...did you percieve the endng as Ruthie making it across the bridge? Just curious. Mark- I agree with the character comparisons with Love Medicine.

Tom Conoboy said...

I think the ending is nicely enigmatic. She begins talking about her mother in the present tense, with a sense of immediacy, which could lead you to suppose that she has crossed to where her mother is, ie death.

But then she and Sylvie have the debate about whether, after seven years, they can still be prosecuted, which seems to locate them firmly in life.

I tend towards the latter view, but I don't think it matters that much. The point is that Sylvie has taken her away and shown her a different, more fulfilled life, away from the stultification that would have overcome her had she stayed home.

I'm going to look out for the movie. Bill Forsyth is a fellow Scot, and has a fine eye for human sensitivity, so I expect he will have made a good job of this film.

Reader2 said...

I agree. To support the other view Robinson writes, I believe it was the crossing of the bridge that changed me finally...And a wind came up the north, so that the push of the wind and the pull of the current were the same, and it seemed as though they were not to be resisted. And then it was so dark.(pg 215) Absolutely beautiful imagery. She continues with, I have never distinguished readily between thinking and dreaming. Robinson continues to tease with statements such as, All this is fact. Fact explains nothing. On the contrary, it is fact that requires explanation.(pg 217) The enigmatic crossing is reminicsent of Dickinson's poems. Is Ruthie in a dream like state of how her life as a traveler would be while she is crossing to a new existence she's never known? Nonetheless, Ruthie transcends and I love it so...