This book wasn’t completely perfect. There were occasional flaws, and thank God for that because a book so beautifully written and so wonderfully well-constructed can be rather discouraging for a writer, particularly when you remember that Housekeeping (published in 2004) was its author’s first novel.
I find it much harder to be drawn into a novel than I used to be, possibly because I see through the artifice more easily than I once did. I imagine puppeteers must find it harder than other people to suspend their disbelief and see the little wooden figures as real characters. I find it somewhat easier, I think, to give myself up to slow painterly writing, than to busy stuff with lots of things happening. In any case, this slow painterly book completely drew me in.
Two sisters grow up in a small town in Idaho, beside the large lake that claimed the lives of both their grandfather and their mother, and the railway bridge that spans it. Their grandmother looks after them until she dies too, and then two great-aunts more accustomed to a shabby-genteel life in a hotel room than managing a household with two children, and then finally their odd, solitary, distracted aunt Sylvie, who has lived a transient life, picking work here and there, riding in boxcars, gathering yarns and stories from passing acquaintances. One of the sisters (Lucille) eventually breaks free of this life, the other (Ruth, who is also the narrator) does not.
One of the main characters in this book is, in a way, the material world -the lake and its shores, the house, the bridge- which for a lot of the time is Ruth’s (and her aunt’s and her sister’s) main companion, her ‘significant other’. The writing beautifully evokes its materiality, its mystery, while at the same time mining it for interesting and unexpected metaphors. A metaphor, after all, is not just some literary device. It is a recognition that things have similarities with one another, and that even things we think of as ‘inside’ us have similarities with things ‘outside’ to the point that the distinction itself is somewhat questionable.
In the following, Ruth and Lucille are out by themselves on the frozen lake, right at the extremity of the area that is swept of snow to provide a skating rink for the town:
The town itself seemed a negligible thing from such a distance. Were it not for the clutter on the shore, the flames and the tremulous pillars of heat that stood above the barrels, and of course the skaters who swooped and sailed and made bright, brave sounds, it would have been possible not to notice the town at all. The mountains that stood up behind it were covered with snow and hidden in the white sky, and the lake was sealed and hidden, yet their eclipse had not made the town more prominent. Indeed, where we were we could feel the reach of the lake far behind us, and far beyond us on either side, in a spacious silence that seemed to ring like glass.
The topography of a landscape is quite difficult to describe without the prose becoming plodding and literal, but Robinson seems to achieve this effortlessly. Here for example, a beach on the lake is not only evoked but its precise layout rather carefully explained, without the exceptionally fluent prose faltering in any way:
The shore drifted in a long, slow curve, outward to a point, beyond which three step islands of diminishing size continued the sweep of the land toward the depths of the lake, tentatively, like an ellipsis. The point was high and stony, crested with fir trees. At its foot a narrow margin of brown sand abstracted its crude shape into one pure curve of calligraphic delicacy, sweeping, again, toward the lake.
But she writes beautifully, and wittily, about human things too. Here is Lucille beginning to pull away from her sister Ruth and from the eccentric isolation of their life with Sylvie in their dead grandmother’s house. Ruth has gone to fetch a dictionary at Lucille’s request (in order to find out what ‘pinking sheers’ are) and, opening it, finds it full of dried flowers, carefully pressed there by their dead grandfather:
“Let me see that,” Lucille said. She took the book by each end of its spine and shook it. Scores of flowers and petals fell and drifted from between the pages. Lucille kept shaking until nothing more came, and then she handed the dictionary back to me. “Pinking sheers,” she said.
“What will we do with these flowers?”
“Put them in the stove.”
“Why do that?”
“What are they good for?” This was not a real question, of course. Lucille lowered her coppery brows and peered at me boldly, as if to say, It is not crime to harden my heart against pansies that have smothered in darkness for forty years.
This example also touches on a theme that runs through the book: the paradoxical nature of loss, the way that something or someone lost can be a much bigger matter than the actual presence of that something or someone would ever have been. The sisters live their whole lives in the shadow of their mother’s absence, but..
…if she had simply bought us home again to the high frame apartment building with the scaffolding of stairs, I would not remember her that way. Her eccentricities might have irked and embarassed us when we grew older… We would have laughed together at our strangely solitary childhood, in light of which our failings would seem inevitable, and all our attainments miraculous. Then we would telephone her out of guilt and nostalgia, and laugh bitterly afterward because she asked us nothing, and told us nothing, and fell silent from time to time, and was glad to get off the phone.