Marilynne Robinson's Housekeeping: suicide, adolescence, being different, losing someone

MARILYNNE Robinson's Housekeeping is a work of art. Every word, carefully chosen, reverberates in one's consciousness. Every punctuation matters. One does not sense the struggle in the writing process, if there ever was, because she makes it sound so effortless. Her prose reads like poetry—quiet, calm, soulful. Her language is masterful, often restrained, but so packed with the written and the unwritten that one should read it carefully, slowly, never in a rush, in full concentration, lest the story dissipate elsewhere. She deals away with clichés but makes use of the full armament of her vocabulary to illustrate something or make a point. The landscape she paints of the town of Fingerbone, Idaho, where much of life is built around the lake, takes the reader to its darkest, hidden corners.

“But the lake at our feet was plain, clear water, bottomed with smooth stones or simple mud. It was quick with small life, like any pond, as modest in its transformations of the ordinary as any puddle. Only the calm persistence with which the water touched, and touched, and touched, sifting all the little stones, jet, and white, and hazel, forced us to remember that the lake was vast, and in league with the moon (for no sublunar account could be made of its shimmering, cold life).”

Ms. Robinson's insight into the human condition is deeply felt. The sense of loss and impermance is palpable. The eccentricities of her characters draw us, the readers, to them—Sylvie, Ruthie, and Lucille—and Ms. Robinson helps us understand what they're going through: the struggles of suicide, adolescence, being different, losing someone.

“Memory is the sense of loss, and loss pulls us after it. God Himself was pulled after us into the vortex we made when we fell, or so the story goes. And while He was on earth He mended families. He gave Lazarus back to His mother, and to the centurion He gave his daughter again. He even restored the severed ear of the soldier who cam e to arrest Him—a fact that allows us to hope the resurrection will reflect a considerable attention to detail. Yet this was no more than tinkering. Being a man He felt the pull of death, and being God He must have wondered more than we do what it would be like. He is known to have walked upon water, but He was not born to drown. And when He did die it was sad—such a young man, full of promise, and His mother wept and His friends could not believe the loss, and the story spread everywhere and the mourning would not be comforted, until He was so sharply lacked and so powerfully remembered that His friends felt Him beside them as they walked along the road, and saw someone cooking fish on the shore and knew it to be Him, and sat down to supper with Him, all wounded as He was. There is so little to remember of anyone—an anecdote, a conversation at table. But every memory is turned over and over again, every word, however chance, written in the heart in the hope that memory will fulfill itself, and become flesh, and that the wanderers will find a way home, and the perished, whose lack we always feel, will step through the door finally and stroke our hair with dreaming, habitual fondness, not having meant to keep us waiting long.”

It is one of my favorite books.

2 thoughts on “Marilynne Robinson's Housekeeping: suicide, adolescence, being different, losing someone”

  1. This part "until He was so sharply lacked and so powerfully remembered that His friends felt Him beside them as they walked along the road" makes it sound as if it was their lack and remembrance that brought about the next event and the rest (and could possibly be thought of as a ghost or hallucination), and not as if His being with them was in the resurrected body, because the grave could not hold Him.

  2. I thought of the same thing, too (was this a commentary against resurrection?), but consider the phrase that follows: "...and saw someone cooking fish on the shore and knew it to be Him, and sat down to supper with Him, all wounded as He was." The phrases, "saw someone cooking fish" and "they knew it to be Him," indicate that there was an actual physical presence, and that He had resurrected, indeed.

    Either way, deriving theology from novels isn't something we should be doing, for we can read too many things into the texts. Marilynne Robinson is a self-confessed Christian, but I've read her interviews online, and I have the feeling that we will disagree on many theological points, including the most fundamental ones. But our differences in theology don't dampen my fascination for her writing, which is just wonderful.

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