“Housekeeping” by Marilynne Robinson – a beautifully written exploration of the ways that people choose to live

Marilynne Robinson writes books which are elegantly phrased and beautifully written. Her Gilead books are clever and often very moving and I recommend them to the thoughtful reader. Housekeeping is a standalone novel which I don’t find quite as good as her series but which still has much to commend it.

Lucille and Ruth, who is the narrator of this novel, have been orphaned and are being cared for haphazardly by various female members of their family when their aunt Sylvie, who is a drifter, becomes their carer. The live together in the family home in the town of Fingerbone which is almost surrounded by water – water has taken the lives of previous family members. Sylvie is not a born housekeeper or guardian and the two sisters grow up strangely, fitting in nowhere – one sister takes to this way of life and the other finds it more difficult and finds her own way forward.

This is a strange but compelling book. It is full of images of water and eventually the water that killed the family members will try and overcome this little family too. The book is a little detached from reality and everything just a bit exaggerated but we can also see and understand that the women in this family are trying to live their own lives away from their traditional roles but that it isn’t always easy. The tensions between the different ways of living are interesting and I am absolutely sure that I would not like to live as the sisters do with Sylvie yet I understand that this may be comfortable for her and them.

It is difficult to describe this book because the key to it is the writing which is elegant and clever. I am also not entirely sure what the message is, if any, that the author is putting across unless it is that we must all do our own thing and adopt what way of life suits us best. Nevertheless I very much enjoyed this book and maybe a future rereading will reveal more of the author’s purpose to me.