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Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson

January 30, 2013
The enchanting language, images, happenings–everything in the book is eery, off-kilter, like bright reflections wavering, stretching, disappearing on the clear dark lake at its center.
We peer through the novel’s distorting “lens” at our own world made strange. But the distortions of Robinson’s fiction only render extreme a distortion already there, allowing us to see and feel a certain problem, fathom and dwell with it, “grieve” it, turn it meditatively over and over. There’s something freeing, even exhilarating in doing so, even though you can’t “solve” the problem.
Here’s this homeless little middle-American town dropped by the Westward progress of an empire whose dreams, ambitions, and gods have abandoned it to the slippery rails it’s set for itself. Still, this little lost province is haunted by the hugeness of surrounding sky, by the clear darkness of a lake whose cold searching fingers pry sometimes into the cellars of its homes, by the strange light (what is it for?) that glows in certain families and persons–makes them odd, unstable, ghostly.
There’s no place, no communal shelters for “the life of the spirit” here, except the too-tiny space of the home itself which, if it doesn’t succumb to the prim, drab norms of social workers, keeps its own life, “feeds [its] light’s flame with self-substantial fuel”–a life and a light dis-integrated from town and nation, focused precariously inward. (A sort of Dickinson-speak pervades the story–and the whole book is like a story-rendering of her artistic situation.)
There’s something impossible, inhuman, unlivable in the situation, something that pulls the book’s two sisters–Ruth and Lucy–apart from each other: one into the small-minded, provincial world, one into a flittering ghost world. Two worlds divide from each other, and each in its own way deranges. And, though we’re prepared to prefer Ruth (who narrates the book) and her venturing, wandering way, a jarring ending warns us: not so simple, this story has been told by a ghost.
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