HOUSEKEEPING by Marilynne Robinson


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Robinson's brooding first novel is perhaps fatally weighed down with excess myth-and-symbol pretensions, but it's often exhilaratingly imaginative—as narrator Ruth becomes a kind of spectral presence in the tale of her own childhood and early adolescence in a remote, flood-prone lakeside village in Idaho. The village is where Grandmother lives—the Grandmother who takes in little Ruth and sister Lucille when their mother abandons them, promises to return, then drives to her death in the lake: "She...broke the family and the sorrow was released...a thousand ways into the hills." But the family is held together for a while by Grandmother—whose husband also drowned in that lake when a fine fast train plunged off the bridge; whose three daughters all seemed to have flown off at one time; who cares for Ruth and Lucille well, as if "reliving a long day" with her own lamented daughters. And after Grandmother's death the girls are briefly tended by two aged, fearful relatives who gladly give them up to the care of Aunt Sylvie, one of Grandmother's missing daughters now miraculously returned. But Sylvie's a drifter attempting to housekeep—abstracted, gentle, given to wandering and eating meals in the dark—and Ruth is drawn to Sylvie's world of silences and quiet disappearances, with musings on the nature of loss when people perish and things remain: "The illusion of perimeters fails when families are separated." Lucille, on the other hand, maintains that "calm, horizontal look" of one who sees differences: she joins the "common persons" and leaves home. Finally, then, after Authorities plan to take Ruth away from her obviously unstable aunt, Ruth and Sylvie burn the house, hop the rails, and leave for a lifetime of wandering. A convoluted novel, obsessively striated with repetitive images of fluidity—flooding waters, blinking trains, the play of light and darkness, wisps of overheard tales—but if the poetry is over-stressed, the bottom-line talent in this highly promising debut is unmistakable.

Pub Date: Jan. 14th, 1980
ISBN: 978-0-374-17313-5
Page count: 232pp
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1st, 1980


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