Housekeeping is such a strange book, I hardly know how to begin. Marilynne Robinson is world famous, especially after Gilead won the Pulitzer Prize in 2005, but I didn’t much like Gilead so I was in no rush to read this first novel when in 2015 it arrived chez moi with the first release of Faber Modern Classics. (Which has since gone on to become a list of 21 titles). Housekeeping sat alone and lonely, abandoned in a box marked 2015, but I couldn’t quite make myself take it to the Op Shop which is the fate of books that publishers have sent me but which fail to spark my interest. I have no such compunctions with thrillers, crime novels, YA and weepy memoirs, but, well, I am in awe of the Robinson name, if not of her books.
Alone and lonely, abandoned in the care of someone not very interested in its fate… without knowing it, I had treated this book just like the characters in this novel! Lucille and Ruthie are two girls living in Fingerbone, a small village in rural Idaho. In what looks like a carefully planned suicide, they are abandoned first by their sole parent mother Helen to the care of their grandmother Sylvia, who has herself been abandoned by all three of her daughters. (Molly has gone off to be a missionary in China, Helen had lost contact when she married, and Sylvie is an eccentric wanderer). When grandmother dies, two elderly in-laws called Nona and Lily come to care for the girls but they are only too relieved to abandon the responsibility when long lost Aunt Sylvie turns up.
Men are conspicuous by their absence: Grandfather Edmund is killed in a train crash off the local bridge, unburied in the same lake in which Helen suicides. The girls have never known their father, and there is a mock father figure of the sheriff (who is clearly out of his depth in this dysfunctional situation) but he becomes the catalyst for the breakup of this fragile family.
I haven’t read many reviews but the ones I’ve seen go on about the religious aspects of this novel and its Calvinism. That’s not what I noticed so much. This is a novel of the 1980s, a time when many of us were questioning women’s roles and exploring how we could have equal rights and our freedom and manage the impact on our families, our homes, and our children. It seems to me that in amongst the religious stuff, Housekeeping is asking the same questions, trying to resolve a yearning for freedom and a rejection of the expectation that it’s women who pick up the pieces. The novel asks: what happens when women just don’t do what society expects them to do. What happens when they just don’t comprehend the predetermined roles?
First published in 1980, the novel has no clear setting in time, but it has a 1950s feel, the postwar period when women had had to abandon their participation in work and the wartime economy to retreat to housekeeping and domesticity. These homemakers were also expected to conform in appearance and to sustain a devotion to their clothing and hair. But the girls in Housekeeping have a free-range childhood. They are under the nominal care of successive women who – for different reasons – pay no attention to the socialisation or education or appearance of Lucille and Ruthie, and who seem to have no concept of what keeping house might mean. It’s not just an epic fail in housework, it’s an inability to make a home, a place to nurture two little orphaned girls.
I may have missed it, but I don’t think the author ever uses the term homemaker. But it is implicit, though it’s not clear what homemaking might mean when separated from the domestic nirvana perpetrated in the 1950s. Nobody is baking brownies or sewing or knitting for the girls. Nobody is decorating the house or organising playdates, sleepovers or birthday parties. Nobody is making sure that shoes fit, nobody is reading bedtime stories, nobody is nursing wounded souls or even answering the girls’ questions about their parents. But which of these aspects of housekeeping matter seems submerged. I am not sure if Lucille and Ruthie have a sense of home even as they become aware of its limitations, or if what they have is a constrained (or just desperate) sense of family. But it is also not clear who should be doing whatever kind of housekeeping is ultimately deemed important. It is not exactly neglect on the part of the adults: I am not sure that the characters reject their expected roles as homemakers, it seems to be more a case of simply not comprehending what it means. The feminist in me makes me note that nobody is expecting the absent father to make a home for his children. The reader is left to wonder whether he comprehends housekeeping.
Aunt Sylvie is dramatically eccentric: she hoards empty tin cans and newspapers like Homer and Langley do. But we can also read this as refusal, the kind of blind refusal to see the trash that needs to be put out by somebody. The stereotypical 1950s man read the newspaper, and when he finished, he left it where it was, and he did not see it to notice it cluttering up the tidy home thereafter. The stereotypical woman of the 1950s may have asked him to put it out with the trash – and if she asked twice it was nagging so her timing had to be good. But if he didn’t remove his newspaper (and it was his) then she had to deal with it or it would have mounted up in stacks like Sylvie’s do. The tin cans flourish, of course, because Sylvie does not cook except for ad hoc fry-ups, like men who say they can only do an egg or a burger, not cook an evening meal. (These battles seem won in the 21st century, but some women discover guerrilla warfare when they stop work to have children).
Sylvie also disappears for long periods of time, crucially at night, when grownups are supposed to be there in the house to protect the children and to make them feel secure. Somebody supervises the pyjamas and tooth-brushing, tucks the children in, and deals with night-time terrors or wet beds. The stereotypical 1950s mother did all this because she was expected to and because the stereotypical 1950s father was ‘tired after being at work all day’. But Sylvie is as oblivious as he was. She sleeps outside – on the grass and under trees and in her car. She is as absent as a father who has gone away for a conference or on night shift, who takes it for granted that somebody is taking care of things. But there is no somebody. Society has assumed that Sylvie is the somebody but she is just someone who has moved into the house with the girls. She has not ‘taken them on’.
Sylvie also has an unreachable personality. She isn’t brooding or sulking. Words float past her and there are long silences. She is simply not there for the girls. She is unavailable to be a counsellor, a guide, a role model or a negotiator on their behalf. The reader does not know what she thinks, or where she has been, or why she has become a drifter – and neither do the girls. So Lucille and Ruthie depend entirely on each other for love and affection, not to mention many of the practicalities of life. I am not sure if the novel asks us to believe that these girls are undamaged, as if to say, see, all those brownies and frilly knickers are unnecessary, but as they reach adolescence, Lucille makes an unsurprising choice. She opts for conformity and abandons Ruthie by going to live with a schoolteacher. Facing belated pressure from the good folk of Fingerbone, Ruthie and Sylvia abandon things too.
Not since I read Angela’s Ashes, have I read a novel so saturated with water. (Sorry, the pun is irresistible). It’s not just the fatal lake, the village also floods under torrential rain. The heavens open a lot. But although the ground level is flooded, the quirky house built by Grandfather is a kind of ark – though why an Old Testament God should visit such punishment on the seemingly harmless wasn’t clear to me. But besides the flood, the girls are always getting wet and sleeping in damp clothes, as if to compensate for tears unshed.
I didn’t find Housekeeping a very engaging novel, but I liked it better than Gilead. Housekeeping is no 92 in the Guardian’s 100 Best Novels. (Careful, that review is one of the worst examples of spoilers I’ve ever seen).
Emma at Book Around the Corner reviewed it too: be sure to read the comments as well!
Author: Marilynne Robinson
Publisher: Faber Modern Classics, 2015, first published 1980
Review copy courtesy of Allen & Unwin
Available from Fishpond: Housekeeping: Faber Modern Classics