Being asked to choose the one book you couldn’t live without is a terrible, frightening exercise for a writer, but a good one, as it makes you stop quibbling and take a stand for one novel above them all. And I surprised myself in coming up quite quickly with a single name: Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson. Crafted from a series of extended metaphors she began writing during her dissertation years, completed in a small dark room somewhere in France, Marilynne Robinson conjured Housekeeping out of her childhood memories of growing up in Idaho, and from her love of Emily Dickinson and the Bible:
The disaster took place midway through a moonless night. The train, which was black and sleek and elegant, and was called the Fireball, had pulled more than halfway across the bridge when the engine nosed over toward the lake and then the rest of the train slid after it into the water like a weasel sliding off a rock.
Housekeeping is narrated by Ruth, who is orphaned and, along with her sister Lucille, growing up in the small town of Fingerbone, Idaho. Abandoned by their spinster aunts who initially travel to Fingerbone to care for them, they find themselves in the care of their dead mother’s transient sister Sylvie, who has spent much of her adulthood riding the freight trains with the hobos and the down and outs. Ruth, it turns out, is more like her Aunt than she knows – she is wild, a singular intelligence who will never embrace conventional womanhood. Perhaps it is best to advise that you read this novel as if it were a dream, since it is so layered with extended metaphor that the language breaks away from the plot like a haunting melody and you just have to go with it or risk being alienated by Ruth’s constant asides and allusions:
During those days Fingerbone was strangely transformed. If one should be shown odd fragments arranged on a silver tray and be told, “That is a splinter from the True Cross, and that is a nail paring dropped by Barabbas, and that is a bit of lint from under the bed where Pilate’s wife dreamed her dream,” the very ordinariness of the things would recommend them. Every spirit passing through the world fingers the tangible and mars the mutable, and finally has come to look and not to buy. So shoes are worn and hassocks are sat upon and finally everything is left where it is and the spirit passes on, just as the wind in the orchard picks up the leaves from the ground as if there were no other pleasure in the world but brown leaves, as if it would deck, clothe, flesh itself in flourishes of dusty brown apple leaves, and then drops them all in a heap at the side of the house and goes on. So Fingerbone, or such relics of it as showed above the mirroring waters, seemed fragments of the quotidian held up to our wondering attention, offered somehow as proof of their own significance.
Housekeeping is, like the best lyrical writing of the nineteenth century, grounded in nature (in this case the mountains and deep lakes of Idaho) and has a strong, unique and passionate voice in its young narrator. Thirty years after its publication, there still isn’t much in contemporary literature that compares.
Yvette Walker is a graduate of the Creative Writing program at Curtin University. Her first work of fiction is an epistolary novel called Letters to the End of Love which was published by University of Queensland Press in April 2013. Yvette lives in Perth with her wife Melanie and works as a bookseller.
Your turn: Have you read Housekeeping? Does it appeal to you? It has long been on my to-read list and reading these exquisite snippets makes it even more appealing. Plus I love the name of the town!