Monday, September 17, 2012

Different Kinds of Life: A Review on Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson

Ruth and Lucille are used to times of change and loss. They've grown up hearing the story about the train that drove off the bridge and into the lake, taking their grandfather with it. They never knew their father and their mother left them in the care of their grandmother before she drove off a cliff and into the same lake their grandfather's train disappeared in. Now, after some struggle, the girls are in the care of their Aunt Sylive, a woman whose habits begin to set the town on edge. As the girls work through their struggles of growing up, the town begins to divide, leaving Ruth and Lucille wondering: should they follow the everyday traditions of the town or should they follow the transient dreaming of their eccentric aunt?

Let it be known far and wide: Marilynne Robinson is one of the leading forces of contemporary American literature. Her first novel, Housekeeping, was released in 1980 and was the winner of the PEN/Hemingway award.

I first heard of Robinson in a class called Post-Modern American literature. I had no idea what the title meant, just that the course number matched a requirement that I needed. I was given a syllabus and for each week of class there was a certain list of books to read. Read one or two for each week and be prepared to discuss them in class. Robinson was on there. On a whim, I ordered a used copy of Housekeeping and read it a few days before the designated class day.

Sometimes I wonder about what would have happened had I chosen another author to read for that class discussion. Because one thing's for certain. It would have been a loss for me to have never discovered the works of this brilliant writer.

Robinson's writing has a certain poetic feel to it, a dreaminess that weaves the pictures in your mind without any effort and yet everything in her plots are set in reality. She writes about the simple matter of a girl struggling with growing up, dealing with family loyalties and public scrutiny, remembering years of losses suffered and looking towards the future with a sense of trepidation. And every sentence in this book is beautiful.

"Evening was her special time of day. She gave the word three syllables, and indeed I think she liked it so well for its tendency to smooth, to soften. She seemed to dislike the disequilibrium of counterpoising a roomful of light against a worldful of darkness. Sylvie in a house was more or less like a mermaid in a ship's cabin. She preferred it sunk in the very element it was meant to exclude (99)."

The book is not a plot-driven novel. It's more a study of characters in an everyday way of life. There is no intrigue, no driving action. There is individual struggle, strife, and the pain of tragedy. Quite simply, its a book about life. Sometimes life is boring but its the people that make it worthwhile. In Housekeeping, being different is the crime and family loyalty is at stake. Everything evolves from there.

Ruth is a competent, well-thought teenager and her narrative voice is at times both honest and haunting. She watches the world around her and seems to feel pain at the struggles she sees in dealings with her aunt and her sister. The term to describe Ruth would be "the whole of the world upon her shoulders." She is unique, a dreamer struggling with a system that frowns upon those deemed different. She is the character most drawn out because as narrator her voice colors every image the reader is given. When her aunt arrives, Ruthie looks at her as a kind of salvation. Sylvie is an anchor for Ruth, who seems to be drifting along, unaware of the potential in life until her eccentric aunt changes everything. Lucille on the other hand is the rule-follower that tries to keep her sister's head out of the clouds. Lucille is determined to fit into the societal image set out for her. As a result, the book focuses on the struggles of the two girls pulled in different directions and the idea of allowing each individual to focus on what will make them happy in life, even if others do not do the same. 

Some people may find this book depressing. I've read reviews that claimed their impressions were that Ruthie and Sylvie seemed to suffering from mental illness. A deeper look into this book, and indeed, the subject of many critical studies of this novel (trust me, I've read a LOT of critical essays on this book) is that the subject under study here is the tending of the soul. Other critical assessments focus on the parallels between this novel and the Book of Ruth, and yet others make a study of the ideas of homelessness and transience. Robinson's work as a whole focuses on religious themes mainly but trust me when I say that this book doesn't bash you over the head with its lessons. Housekeeping is more subtle than that. As I said, many tend to think of it as a study of the soul, about the internal 'housekeeping' needed to make a person content with life. The idea is that there are different means of gaining satisfaction with life and we, as a society, a community, and so on, must be open to the idea that just because they may seem different, it doesn't make them wrong.

Rating: 9 Stars

For the public, 9 stars, but personally I still give this book a solid 10. The fact is that many people may find it boring, tedious even. They see a lot of water, tragedy, illness and nothing else. I want people to understand that this book is not conventional in the sense that it has a happy ending. The ending is rather ambiguous but for me, that's what makes it a favorite of mine. After Housekeeping, there is Gilead and Home, a pair of companion novels released in 2004 and 2008 respectively. Considering the time elapsed between Housekeeping's release and Gilead, then the time between Gilead and Home, here's hoping Robinson's next novel is currently on its way.

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