‘House­keep­ing’ by Mar­i­lynne Robin­son (1980)

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - BOOKS REVIEWS - JULIE PAR­SONS

Loss: the sub­ject of House­keep­ing, Mar­i­lynne Robin­son’s story of the Foster sis­ters of Finger­bone, Idaho.

I know about loss, about a fa­ther who dis­ap­pears into wa­ter. In my case it was the South Pa­cific; for the Fos­ters, it was a lake. My fa­ther was on a boat; the Fos­ters’ fa­ther was on a train, which de­railed “like a weasel slid­ing off a rock” from the bridge cross­ing the lake. In my case the boat sur­vived, but the 25 pas­sen­gers dis­ap­peared, in­clud­ing my fa­ther. A suit­case, a seat cush­ion and a let­tuce were all that was re­trieved from the lake in Finger­bone.

Loss drove the Foster sis­ters away. Molly went to China to be­come a mis­sion­ary; He­len, mar­ried to a “cer­tain Regi­nald Stone ... set up house­keep­ing in Seat­tle”. Sylvie just left. Their mother, on her own, lamented: “She had never taught them to be kind to her.”

He­len came home with her daugh­ters, Lu­cille and Ruth. She left them on their grand­mother’s porch “with a box of gra­ham crack­ers to pre­vent con­flict and rest­less­ness.” She drove to the cliff edge. Then she, too, went into the lake. It claimed her, as it had claimed her fa­ther.

Mad­ness mas­querad­ing as ec­cen­tric­ity was the fate of the fam­ily. When Grand­mother died, Sylvie re­turned. The house filled up with news­pa­pers, tin cans, piles of wood, mice, spi­ders and the re­mains of swal­lows brought in by the cat. Lu­cille aban­doned her sis­ter and aunt and went to live with her home eco­nom­ics teacher. Re­spectabil­ity claimed her.

“When did I be­come so un­like other peo­ple?” won­ders Ruth. Was it when her mother “left us and broke the fam­ily and the sor­row was re­leased and we saw its wings and saw it fly a thou­sand ways into the hills”?

Sylvie’s world, the world of the “tran­sient” – the rail­ways, the woods, the moun­tains – beck­oned. Finger­bone be­came just a sta­tion she and Ruth passed through on their way to some­where else.

The lost: may they rest in peace wher­ever they are.

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