Housekeeping — Marilynne Robinson’s first book, was the last book I read for my Penguin online writing class. It was published in 1980, won a few awards, including nomination for the Pulitzer. Her subsequent novels Gilead and Home won even more awards, so it’s pretty clear that Robinson is high up there in the panel of literary darlings.
Housekeeping is not exactly about housekeeping, so one does not need to worry if he or she is not a fan of keeping house. The book revolves around two sisters, who were abandoned by first their father, then their mother. They moved with grandmother, who then passed away. A couple of great-aunts took reign for a winter, before the sisters are finally left to their aunt called Sylvie.
Sylvie is eccentric and does not quite follow the convention of a care giver. I loved this part of the story that gives attention to an oddball; how narrow the path our society expects everyone to be in, and easily dismisses or even fears anyone who doesn’t conform to these ideas.
The book is set in a rather haunting small town, with a lake in the middle of it that is central to the town’s soul, to the characters experience, and to the story. The lake is almost a character in itself, which reminded me about the frozen waterfall in the Norwegian classic The Ice Palace (Tarjei Vesaas). Another book that I was reminded of as I read along was The Stone Diaries by Carol Shields (Pulitzer prize winner in 1995), possibly because of the rural American setting and the focus on family. The tone and the atmosphere definitely felt similar. If you like one you would like the other.
Housekeeping deals with the theme of isolation, loneliness, and sense of belonging, as quoted on the front of page of the newly published Faber Modern Classics edition (pictured above): “Because, once alone, it is impossible to believe that one could ever have been otherwise. Loneliness is an absolute discover.”
A bit of note about the edition: Faber writers were asked to submit their favourite Faber books for inclusion in the Modern Classics series, and Housekeeping was chosen by Barbara Kingsolver.
With all the accolades and praises on to this book, I thought the writing quality was on par with I expected. There were brilliant passages and many sentences that stood out. However — and it is rare for me to ask this of a novel — I kept waiting for something to happen, or some dark secrets to come out, but nothing ever did. There’s a tiny peak or ripples of action in the last 20 pages or so, but that is it. In all honesty, if Housekeeping never won any award or no well-known figures ever recommended it, I would never have thought it to be in any way significant. I wouldn’t have picked it up by myself, to be read, or to be recommended to people after reading. It would’ve been too quiet for me to notice it on my own.
Its length of 218 pages is its strength I think – making it lean enough to hold one’s attention. I’m happy to know that Gilead is less than 250 pages, so I’ll most probably read it. I already got it off Oxfam.
Mee’s rating: 3.5/5 stars – High quality prose tying everything together. I probably didn’t quite connect to it on a personal level, but I liked it enough to want to read Robinson’s second book.
Houseekeping was included in the Guardian and Observer’s 100 best novels in English and Time magazine’s 100 Best Novels since 1923.