Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson (1980)

How did I ever miss this book? In 2003, the Guardian named Housekeeping one of the 100 greatest novels of all time, describing the book as: "Haunting, poetic story, drowned in water and light, about three generations of women." And I just bumped into it by accident while browsing in the library the other day. The cover caught my eye.

Housekeeping is the story of Ruth and her sister Lucille, who are cared for in succession by their grandmother, two elderly aunts, and then finally their eccentric Aunt Sylvie after their mother commits suicide. Once they are under Sylvie's care, Robinson dwells on how each of the three is changed by their new life together. She also examines the effect their mother's suicide and the legend of their grandfather's bizarre death had on them.

Narrated by Ruth and set in a fictional town on a lake somewhere in Idaho, the novel is poetic and haunting, and touches on many themes: motherhood, sisterhood and families and what it means when these relationships are cut off, the juxtaposition of "normal" society with people who live on the fringe of it (itinerants, hoarders, people who live isolated lives in the mountains or in anonymous city apartments), and the characters' relationships to the natural world. Ruth, Lucille and Aunt Sylvie spend much of their time outdoors, on and around the lake, in the woods, and on the mountain. The lake, where both Ruth's mother and grandfather died, can almost be considered another character in the novel, given the impact it has on the lives of everyone and the evocative way the author writes about it.

Finely written, thought provoking and suspenseful, I can certainly understand why this book ended up on a "best of" list, but not why it took me so long to discover it.

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