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Review: Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson

LD#1 has a reading list for her new sixth form college and so we have a lot of new reading matter in the house.

They are all short books too, as if the tutors didn’t want to scare anyone off.

Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson is the story of two sisters, Ruth and Lucille, and what happens to them when their mother dies when they are young.  They are brought up by various family members, all of whom have in common a tendency to extreme solitude and instability.

I couldn’t get over how similar this book is to Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived In The Castle – a strong influence of femaleness; of a mental state that is abnormal to onlookers, but perfectly logical and normal to those experiencing it; a feeling of inevitability; the overwhelming influence of the natural world.  In fact, this last theme was something that caused me to feel at times quite physically uncomfortable while I read both books, but also sometime fascinated and exhilarated.

There are also several themes that are the inversions of each other: Housekeeping is about a solitariness that exists because we are stuck in the very largeness of the world, while Castle is about the threat of the outside world and how to keep oneself away from it.   Simple Christian imagery runs through Housekeeping, while Castle is more in the tradition of witchcraft and fairytale.

Both books are amazingly original in the way they create fantastic alternative worlds using situations, peoples and landscapes that are recognisably everyday.  Robinson is much more startling and memorable in her use of imagery of language, although I guess Jackson was the first in having the idea… I’d be really fascinated to know whether Robinson was influenced by Jackson in her writing of this book, although I haven’t been able to find anything out about this.

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6 Comments

  1. Good review, Denise. I’d also be interested in the reading list. Talking to the mother of a daughter who has just received an A grade for her first year A level in English Literature WITHOUT reading any of the texts all the way through makes me wring my hands in despair.

  2. I’m another who is always up for a reading list! I have to top and tail Robinson, as it were, having read everything except this, her first, and her most recent, ‘Lila’ which is next on the pile. I’ve loved her other books so I’m hoping to get as much pleasure out of these.

  3. Glad the British Form 6 reading list includes Marilynne Robinson’s book. Thanks for posting about Housekeeping. I’m very impressed by Gilead and Lila, both books’ point of views are like reverse shots of each other. Those two are my favourite MR books. She is a brilliant writer and thinker; her non-fiction works are highly intellectual. If you’re interested, here’s my post on Housekeeping just to share with you my thoughts.

    • Of course I’m interested to read your post! Your post reminded me, when you wrote of the awards it has won, what a sophisticated use the book makes of “Show Not Tell”. And how well that links in with the themes of strangeness and different that run through the family. What you pick up on about the sisters’ closeness is also true, and strangely, follows the pattern of my own childhood. Extreme situations can drive people together as children, but I’ve found that unless you resolve the underlying issues, as you grow up you find your own ways of coping and become very attached to your ways.

      • Have you read Gilead and Lila? Those are interesting reverse shots of each other. As a matter of fact, I’m really interested in what other titles are on that F. 6 reading list. BTW, I was in F. 4 in HK when I immigrated to Canada with my family decades ago. But no reading list then.

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