This book by Marilynne Robinson had been on my shelf for a while, bought because of reputation, and anticipated. Perhaps I expected too much of a first novel because, though it has amazing reviews, I struggled to connect with the story. The writing, however, is beautiful, poetic, elegiac.
It is the story of Ruth and Lucille, orphans, who grow up beside a haunting lake in the vast open countryside of mid-America. The lake dominates the life of everyone who lives around it, it floods every year, and floods the house where the two girls live, first with their grandmother and then with their Aunt Sylvie. We see Sylvie’s attempts at housekeeping dwindle as the house floods each winter, as her care for the house fails, so the two girls are uncared for. Not abused, but not clean, not sent to school, not disciplined. It is a novel about the failure of housekeeping in this house, and in the family, and it is the two who girls who suffer.
The sad story moves at a slow pace, and until halfway through I had no clear picture of how the two girls were different. It is Ruth who narrates, much of which is description of the house which lays at the heart of the story.
All the description, though, is poetic. Ruth’s grandmother in her elderly years “continued to settle and began to shrink. Her mouth bowed forward and her brow sloped back, and her skull shone pink and speckled within a mere haze of hair, which hovered about her head like the remembered shape of an altered thing.”
This is not an easy read, often obscure. There was no strong thread to pull me through the book, to keep turning the pages. Two other Robinson books sit on my shelf – Gilead and Lila – I don’t know now what to expect from them. I think I will wait a while before attempting them.
If you like ‘Housekeeping’, try these other novels by American writers:-
‘A Thousand Acres’ by Jane Smiley
‘Summertime’ by Vanessa Lafaye
‘Barkskins’ by Annie Proulx
‘Housekeeping’ by Marilynne Robinson [UK: Faber] Buy now
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