Like her biblical namesake, the Ruth of Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping (1980) is a sojourner among strangers. The almost misleading title of the novel suggests that the novel will be concerned with the daily habits that constitute and stabilize domestic life. Instead, the novel’s protagonists inhabit their house without feeling at home. Similarly, they live in their hometown of Fingerbone without belonging much to it.
It’s a painfully lonely novel. The reflective narrator, Ruthie, remembers her own coming of age in a too-wet Idaho town, evocatively named Fingerbone. The women with whom the narrator resonates are each ill-at-home in the world. For a season Ruthie is raised by her grandmother, a woman whose nights are marked by the
sharp loneliness she had felt every long evening since she was a child. It was the kind of loneliness that made clocks seem slow and loud and made voices sound like voices across water.
This sentence, like so many, is remarkable; its images and even its sound draw attention to the pain that it renders so beautifully. And so the novel. Robinson takes this child’s experience of loss and deep loneliness and makes it beautiful. Or, to say it more strongly, she gives voice and shape to the beauty of loss and loneliness.
The novel is thick with water, air, quiet, and dark. And Robinson makes something of what threatens to be formless and void. She speaks the silence, shapes the water, substantiates the air, makes visible the darkness. Her poetics of absence seem to fulfill what Ruthie calls “a law of completion,” her confidence that “everything must finally be made comprehensible.”
For why do our thoughts turn to some gesture of a hand, the fall of a sleeve, some corner of a room on a particular anonymous afternoon, even when we are asleep, and even when we are so old that our thoughts have abandoned other business? What are all these fragments for if not to be knit up finally?
Ruthie’s intuition pervades this novel. Robinson’s poetics of absence seems marked by the conviction that to apprehend emptiness is to near its fulfillment, to endure loneliness is to await its abatement.
Robinson gives the most ample account of the condition of loneliness to reward the reader in the end with the firm conviction that to feel the depths of loss brings one closer to the hope of restitution, that to endure the discomfort of exile brings one closer to the hope of home.
She is a poet of longing that is neither fulfilled nor resigned. The evocation of memory, the pain of estrangement, the grief of loss—these are each instances of simultaneous absence and presence. We long for what we do not possess. But the longing makes the object of desire in some manner present. Thus, longing is a sign of anticipated fulfillment, a hope the novel affirms.
For need can blossom into all the compensation it requires. To crave and to have are as like as a thing and its shadow. For when does a berry break upon one’s tongue as sweetly as when one longs to taste it, and when is the taste refracted into so many hues and savors of ripeness and earth, and when do our senses know anything so utterly as when we lack it? And here again is a foreshadowing—the world will be made whole.
Craving, need, and hope are all such delicate substances, such precarious conditions, that we often do all we can to escape them whether by gratification or by extinction. But Robinson affirms and evokes the difficult spiritual condition of unsated longing. And so doing, she renews the imagination of the stranger and sojourner, the exile who feels the ways in which she does not belong to this world.
Whether you start with Housekeeping, the Pulitzer Prize winning Gilead, her just-published Home, or her essays, you should probably start reading Robinson. There are few living novelists whose work I trust as deeply as I am beginning to hers. She avoids parochialism without descending into trendiness, and naivety without becoming cynical. Her imagination is rife without being fanciful. She sees and shows the fullness of things as they are. And all she asks in return is a reader’s patience, the sort that repays the waiting.
Ruthie’s Aunt Sylvie is an eccentric housekeeper. Believing that air is the most powerful solvent, she opens the doors and windows to clean the house. Reading the deliberately slow and ponderous Housekeeping feels something like that, like discovering the power of air to wash you clean.