Friday, May 23, 2008

The Reading List: Housekeeping


I didn't know anything about this book and so had no particular expectations of it, but if I did have expectations they probably would have been wrong. Housekeeping has a quietly eerie tone that, although not necessarily a radical departure from mainstream modern literature, is nevertheless decisively and confidently unique. It is often called "haunting"; I don't feel that is quite the right word, but I'm not sure I can offer a better one. Maybe we haven't invented the word yet that describes this book exactly right.

Published in 1980, Housekeeping has a spare and timeless feel. For all I knew before I looked it up, it could have been written in the 1950s of its setting, or yesterday. The novel is noteworthy, first and foremost, for its subdued, elegaic emotional tenor. It tells of a childhood abundant with sorrows and family disfunction, yet it relates all of these events with the restrained poker face of the child who has grown up much too quickly. Small joys are dwelt on, and great tragedies are spoken of matter-of-factly, with emphasis on the sorts of random details that tend to stick in the mind of a child. The effect is disturbing and, I think, psychologically accurate and revealing.

Several key characters are "drifters" of one sort or another, and their life within and in conflict with the staid middle-class establishment is a major theme of the book. Robinson leans rather too easily towards the advantages of the drifting life, I think, but keep in mind that it's the poster boy of the staid middle-class establishment talking, here. Too, the critique of American social norms in Housekeeping is subtle, and kind, and largely on target.

It is worth mentioning that this book is a very easy read, and also that I loved it. It is exquisitely written. Robinson's descriptions of the imposing physical and human landscapes of her setting, the fictional northwestern town of "Fingerbone" (likely her hometown of Sandpoint, Idaho, under a thin fictional veil) have a truly forlorn majesty. My only reservation is that it doesn't seem quite plausible that the character of the narrator would ever write a book like this. But, who knows. And in any event, this is probably an issue with the great bulk of books written in the first person.

The Plot: Two orphaned sisters are raised by a succession of increasingly problematic female relatives in an isolated mountain community in the American Northwest. Their lives get shaped by mountains, winters, family history, a very large, cold lake, and loneliness, and they ultimately react in equal but opposite ways.

4 comments:

Dr. Kenneth Noisewater said...

The table is set for some hot lesbo action? Is there lesbo stuff? Wait, don't tell me. I want to be pleasantly surprised.

karmasartre said...

re. Masthead: I like the change making the image fill out the space to the borders....

karmasartre said...

But now it doesn't (again)!

Michael5000 said...

@Dr. Ken: You know, I'm not sure this is going to be the book for you....