Marilynne Robinson’s first novel, Housekeeping, is often described as a ‘classic’, a ‘masterpiece’ and regularly makes ‘Greatest Novel of all time’ lists. I read her Pulitzer Prize winning Gilead (2004) a couple of years ago. I found that story – about the spiritual and moral crises experienced by an old man in the few weeks before his death – profound and moving. So I opened Housekeeping prepared to be impressed, which I was. But, while I closed Gilead with a gentle sense of sadness, I put Housekeeping down feeling like I’d received a kick in the stomach. The prose is equally stunning, but these are two completely different books.
Housekeeping is the story of two sisters, Ruth and Lucille, who are progressively abandoned by their family, until they find themselves left in the care of their eccentric drifter aunt, Sylvie. They live in the isolated North Western mountain town of Fingerbone. As they grow up, the sisters are faced with a stark choice, turn away from the past and attempt to re-join society, or follow Sylvie into her strange world.
I found Housekeeping so disturbing that at first I wasn’t sure I was going to be able to write about it. It’s taken me a few days to work out that what disturbed me so much about this book is the horrifying absence of love at its core. This lack is not explained; it just is. We can interpret it as the result of layers of trauma. There is no sense of human warmth or connection, none of the relationships that ground us in our lives and give us reasons to stay in one place or carry on living. The story, told by Ruth, traces the effects on a handful of lives of this trauma which seems to manifest itself in an inability to grieve or love.
The lake at the centre of the novel symbolises the trauma that causes this absence: cold, black, silent; it covers the body of the girls’ mother, who left them on their grandmother’s doorstep and drove her car “into the blackest depth of the lake”, to join their grandfather who died on a train which “slid into the water like a weasel sliding off a rock” never to be seen again.
The narrative is also disturbing because it forces us into identification with a narrator so traumatised that she has almost no sense of self; yet, at the same time, is utterly selfish and immovable. At the end of the novel she tells us about a terrible thing that she has done, but there is no real sense that she feels regret or sadness for it; she may even think that the person concerned deserves dreadful punishment.Terrifying
Gilead is almost a counter-narrative to Housekeeping. It, too, is about a handful of ordinary people living in a quiet, isolated part of America, but the story is presented as an act of love — a letter John Ames writes to his young son because he knows he won’t live to see him grow up. Where Housekeeping has a terrible emptiness at its heart, Gilead is full of human feeling. I’ve decided to keep Gilead for Robinson’s prose, but Housekeeping is going to the charity shop because I know I’ll never want to dive into its “airless depths” again.