Self-isolation. It means something different to each of us. Perhaps you are in the company of a partner, roommates, a clan of kids; perhaps you are entirely by yourself. Regardless, the experience of being confined to your household and cut off from the outside world is a lonely one. Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson won’t cure loneliness, but it’s the perfect read in which to find solace amid these unusual circumstances. At its core, the book is a compassionate and beautifully-written meditation on solitude and the idiosyncrasies of domestic life.
Once alone, it is impossible to believe that one could ever have been otherwise. Loneliness is an absolute discovery.
Ruth, our narrator, and her sister, Lucille, are orphans whose tragic past has brought them to Fingerbone, a desolate town ‘chastened… by an awareness that the whole of human history had occurred elsewhere’. Here, they are raised by their aunt Sylvie who is as intriguing as she beyond the reach of her nieces (and, indeed, the reader!). They interact with practically no one beyond their unusual three-person household: an arrangement that brings Ruth comfort but that Lucille meets with growing repulsion.
The pacing of the novel is remarkable. In the space of some two hundred pages, Robinson charts the sisters’ growth from childhood to adolescence, yet all the while she manages to evoke a sense of perpetual stillness, as if time were not really passing at all. The ending is dramatic, tragic and uplifting all at once, but it somehow fits perfectly with the leisurely flow of the narrative.
As with all Robinson’s work, the main attraction is the prose itself. Robinson examines humanity from above. She conveys the quotidian and the visceral through language that has been described as ‘transcendent’, ‘almost Biblical’. This book makes your problems feel at once significant and small.
Every spirit passing through the world fingers the tangible and mars the mutable, and finally has come to look and not to buy. So shoes are worn and hassocks are sat upon and finally everything is left where it was and the spirit passes on, just as the wind in the orchard picks up the leaves from the ground as if there were no other pleasure in the world but brown leaves, as if it would deck, clothe, flesh itself in flourishes of dusty brown apple leaves, and then drops them all in a heap at the side of the house and goes on.
So if isolation’s getting you down, and you’re in need of an equal measure of perspective and consoling, give Housekeeping a go!
Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson is published by Faber and Faber, 224 pages.