This is my review of Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson.
This slim novel is deceptively easy to read – the poetic style and unusual trains of thought require concentration and rereading to get the full meaning. Robinson has a gift for making the ordinary seem extraordinary – for me, this started on page three with the description of the sky reflected in puddles, soon afterwards the experience of something as simple as hanging out sheets. At first, I thought the book would be a kind of eulogy of the apparently mundane pattern of women's lives in rural America (or the whole world), creating satisfaction and dignity in the routine of making jam or rearing children, such as you also find in some of the writing of Jane Smiley and Barbara Kingsolver. Then, as the story became ever more often a stream of consciousness, isolating the narrator Ruth from the "real" world, linking her to the itinerant and recognisably manic aunt Sylvie and to memories or images of the grandfather and mother who have so tragically died in the ever-present Lake Fingerbone, I realised that this is a much more profound study of how parents may unintentionally damage their children, through failure to communicate, or through leaving them, and also about the meaning of life.
Although much of the writing is "exquisite" with striking and original similes, it sometimes seems over-laboured and self-consciously "creative writing". The biblical passages may grate on those who are not believers, but are acceptable as part of the culture of the rural north-west States. I agree with the reviewer who found the narrator Ruth altogether too knowing and perceptive as a young child. At times she enters the head of, say, her deceased grandmother in a way that is implausible, but perhaps realism is not always the author's intention. Despite the minute detail and acuity of many descriptions of sensations, the vivid evocation of the bleak yet beautiful Lake Fingerbone area through the cyclical seasons of snow, ice and flood, and the wit and realism of overheard conversations, most of the main characters remain shadowy in their personalities and motivations. Perhaps one point of the story is the ultimate unknowability of other people. It certainly helps one to empathise with life's drifters, who are too often objects of fear because they remind one that much of the security of life is an illusion.