Once in a blue moon an encounter with a new book can be like falling in love – you just know, instinctively, that you’ve found a voice that’s entirely sympathetic, and that you want to spend the rest of your life with it – or at close quarters, at least. Housekeeping had that effect on me: I remember the distant rumbles of acclaim when it first came out in 1980 and was nominated for the Pulitzer among its raft of other awards, but I didn’t catch up with it myself until last year, and I read it with a sense of wonder. Marilynne Robinson’s second novel Gilead (2004) did win the Pulitzer, and has marvellous things about it too, but it is Housekeeping that I would take to my desert island – where it would be curiously appropriate.
For never has a book been given a more ironic title. This is no manual for the domestically challenged. The lakeside home of the orphaned Ruthie and Lucille in Fingerbone in the American North-West slides stealthily back into nature under the benign but distracted eye of their aunt Sylvie, who literally drifts in off the railroad tracks one day to take over the care of the sisters from their maiden great-aunts. Leaves begin to blow in through the open windows and doors and silt up in piles in the corners, twists of stained and browned paper scraps shifting among them. Shadows of soot loom up the wall above the stove, and the pipes and cupboard tops slowly grow a thick furred pelt of dust. Doors gradually shift off their hinges, paint yellows and cracks and chips, though barely detected. For the electric light, which would show up these small accretions of decay, almost never goes on; Sylvie much prefers the dark. The girls come home, often from long days spent playing truant, to find her sitting dreamily in the gathering dusk or moonlight. ‘Sylvie in a house was more or less like a mermaid in a ship’s cabin. She preferred it sunk into the very element it was meant to exclude. We had crickets in the pantry, squirrels in the eaves, sparrows in the attic.’
The sisters had been left when very young in the covered porch of their grandmother’s house at Fingerbone – with their suitcases and a packet of cream crackers – by their mother Helen, who had driven them all the way over from Seattle in a neighbour’s borrowed Ford. She then got back into the car, drove north some way, swerved across a meadow and sailed off the edge of a cliff into the blackest depths of the lake. A g
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