Last week I was tidying a room and found a copy of Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping. I read it not long after it was published in the early 1980s, then again about ten years ago. In some ways it was a different book the second time around. When I first read it, I was a young mother and what I noticed was the sense of abandonment. Girls stranded with aging grandmothers as children because of a mother’s suicide, strangers in bus stations talking of losing their children as infants, the ghosts of children at a collapsed homestead under the mountain near Fingerbone, (“stunted orchard and lilacs and stone doorstep and fallen house, all white with a brine of frost”) and how the narrator hears their voices while waiting , and hoping her wayward aunt Sylvie will return to row her home over a dark lake. The second time I read it, I noticed the sentences, how beautiful each one was, and how the novel proved it’s possible to build a narrative around graceful sentences. A novel could be lyrical and resonant as the Book of Psalms. This time I noticed everything. It took me a week to read a book of slightly more than 200 pages. I’d read, pause, think about how I’d imagined one thing ten years ago when I first encountered Sylvie; and now she seemed far more complex. I thought about the setting, its mountains, the icy lake, and the sound of trains heading east and west. And how important it was to know their schedules.
I’d always thought the ending was clear. But it’s not. I see now that there are several possiblities, one happier than the other(s). One more inevitable than the other(s). When I was immersed in caring for my own small children, I believed one ending. Ten years later, I was willing to believe another. And now? I think this book explores how we can live between worlds, we can apprehend the past — our own as well as a more impersonal history — and inhabit the interstices, the gaps that most people avoid. The narrator, Ruthie, is drawn to those places, influenced by her aunt.
To the east the mountains were eclipsed. To the west they stood in balmy light. Dawn and its excesses always reminded me of heaven, a place where I have always known I would not be comfortable. They reminded me of my grandfather’s paintings, which I have always taken to be his vision of heaven. And it was he would brought us here, to this bitter, moon-pulled lake, trailing us after him unborn, like the infants he had painted on the dresser drawers, whose garments swam in some ethereal current, perhaps the rim of the vortex that would rag them down out of that enameled sky, stripped and screaming. Sylvie’s oars set off vortices. She swamped some leaves and spun a feather on its curl. The current that made us sidle a little toward the center of the lake was the draw of the river, and no vortex, though my grandfather’s last migration had settled him on the lake floor. It seemed that Sylvie’s boat slipped down the west side of every wave. We would make a circle, and never reach a shore at all, if there were a vortex, I thought, and we would be drawn down into the darker world, where other sounds would pour into our ears until we seemed to find songs in them, and the sight of water would invade our eyes…
In ten years I’ll read Housekeeping again and what will the ending tell me about a woman and a girl balanced on a railway bridge above that bitter, moon-pulled lake, about the songs they hear in water, and how it’s possible to make a life in the interstices, where everything is all white with a brine of frost? And where heaven is not for everyone.