Housekeeping

Marilynne Robinson

I remember hearing about Marilynne Robinson’s novel Gilead years ago, probably when it was published in 2004, and it’s probably still on some misplaced reading list somewhere. But it wasn’t until friends were recently appreciating Housekeeping, her first, so effusively that I was reminded.

The western mountain town Fingerbone is almost a character on its own with its glacial lake that has claimed both the grandfather (through a “spectacular train wreck”) and the mother (who succeeded in driving off a cliff into it on her second attempt) of two sisters. They remain in the family house being raised by a progression of family members, eventually settling into an uneasy life with their aunt Sylvie, a drifter at heart. The family has always lived somewhat apart from the rest of the town, and during a severe spring flooding that immobilizes the rest of the town, theirs escapes serious damage. “That we were self-sufficient, our house reminded us always.” While at first the sisters are desperate not to be abandoned again, over time Sylvie’s eccentric nature begins to wear on them differently. Housekeeping delves into the isolating qualities of loss and the ways people cope.

There is so little to remember of anyone — an anecdote, a conversation at table. But every memory is turned over and over again, every word, however chance, written in the heart in the hope that memory will fulfill itself, and become flesh, and that the wanderers will find a way home, and the perished, whose lack we always feel, will step through the door finally and stroke our hair with dreaming, habitual fondness, not having meant to keep us waiting long.

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