Morag Joss began writing in 1997 after her first short story won a prize in a national competition. She is the author of three novels - Funeral Music, Fearful Symmetry and Fruitful Bodies - that feature professional cellist and amateur sleuth Sara Selkirk. Her award-winning fourth novel, Half Broken Things, signalled the beginning of a departure from genre fiction and her fifth, Puccini's Ghosts, to be published in paperback by Sceptre in April, marks her evolution from crime writer to literary novelist. Morag lives in Wiltshire and London and is at work on her next novel, White Spell, to be published in 2007. Below, she writes about Marilynne Robinson's Housekeeping.
Morag Joss on Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson
There are books I've loved and have forgotten. There are books I've loved and have re-read, sometimes more than once, before falling out of love with them finally, and consigning them to the part of memory where past relationships lurk. When I think about these books, and quite often I do, I have to go looking in the past for what they meant; yes, they were important to me once and so I shall always value them, but the relationship's over. I don't revisit them as a reader because I'd be dismayed to have it confirmed that they've already given me all I'm capable of appreciating and that there's nothing more.
And then there are the books I've loved and stay in love with, re-reading them every so often and each time being surprised by an unexpected thought, a different angle, another depth - books which remain with me years after I read them as active, current presences in my mind and which will, as far as I can tell, remain there permanently. Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson belongs in that category. It sits partly in memory, because I recall so vividly the elation I felt on first reading it, but more importantly it is also alive for me in the present because it is still yielding up its quiet wonders and I know it hasn't finished with me yet. It seems to 'belong' to me, perhaps rather in the way that a scar does; the experience of reading it the first time - and the second, and subsequent readings - left distinct, uncomfortable marks that have become part of the lines and bumps of how I feel and think. The few others in this category for me are Le Grand Meaulnes, The Great Gatsby, and very, very possibly (a year or two more will tell) Cloud Atlas. They're like the best kind of conversation, as with an intimate friend. Familiarity does not dull, it deepens the exchange.
Housekeeping tells the story of Ruthie and Lucille as they grow up in their grandmother's house in Fingerbone, a town by a lake surrounded by mountains. The two girls, abandoned one afternoon on the porch by their mother, are cared for by their grandmother until she dies, then briefly by Aunts Nona and Lily, and finally by their strange Aunt Sylvie. For Ruthie the narrator there are three ghosts in the story at least as real as any of the living people: her grandmother, her grandfather who died when a train came off the bridge across the lake and crashed into the water, and her mother, also claimed by the lake when she drove a car at speed straight off a cliff and into it. So the lake, and by extension water, the seasons and the elements and the landscape of mountains surrounding Fingerbone, become characters in the story, too, as real and also more powerful and destructive than any living person Ruthie encounters.
It is true that one is always aware of the lake in Fingerbone, or the deeps of the lake, the lightless, airless waters below. When the ground is plowed in spring, cut and laid open, what exhales from the furrows but that same, sharp, watery smell. The wind is watery, and all the pumps and creeks and ditches smell of water unalloyed by any other element.Nearly every review and critique of this novel you can find will say something slightly awed and breathless about Robinson's 'poetic' style of writing (the implication being that the poetic in prose, in and of itself, elevates it above mere 'prosaic' prose - an interesting idea, but not one to look at in detail here). It's quite true. Robinson uses language with the precision and relish and rhythm of certain poets. Ruthie, although a sometimes dreamy, almost fey narrator, uses words in a way that is both plain and exact.
We spent days on our knees in the garden, digging caves and secret passages with kitchen spoons for our dolls, mine a defrocked bride with a balding skull and Lucille's a filthy and eyeless Rose Red.This gives her strange, rather elusive story an oddly forward-moving energy; as a reader I am drawn in two directions equally, onwards by the narrative, and backwards by a desire to re-read every paragraph for its colours and cadence and music. And this quality is brilliantly sustained, as I perceive even more clearly now that I've been looking for a sentence or two to quote, because almost every line of this novel is quotable. Almost every line is exemplary of writing richly descriptive yet shucked clean of clutter. So maybe Robinson's prose is like poetry in the sense that every word is necessary, and necessary exactly where it has been put, but I've always thought that this should be just as true and required of words in a piece of prose as in a poem.
There are critics and readers who would consider Housekeeping a 'small' novel. There is no global context, no big historical or social backdrop of war, society or civilization. (We don't even know very precisely when it is set, only that it's an era not just of trains and cars but also of nylon scarves and setting lotion.) It doesn't need them. Its themes are transience, loss and survival, love and abandonment, and it deals with them entirely through the small specifics of events, places, people within Ruthie's ken. It is this very specificity that I think makes it a very 'big' novel indeed. It takes the humility and subtlety of a writer like Marilynne Robinson to show us that it's in the little things that the big things reside. And what is fiction for, if not to show the universal in the particular, the tragic in the single, familial disaster?
In the last sentence of the novel Ruthie unscrolls for us a final picture of separation and human longing, as she imagines Lucille grown-up, tastefully dressed and waiting alone in a Boston restaurant:
No one watching this woman smear her initials in the steam on her water glass with her first finger, or slip cellophane packets of oyster crackers into her handbag for the sea gulls, could know how her thoughts are thronged by our absence, or know how she does not watch, does not listen, does not wait, does not hope, and always for me and Sylvie.Probably there exist lots of sunny, unafraid people who have no need of this abundant and unsettling novel. There may even be a few who would be unmoved by Ruthie's unselfconscious striving to express the wavering, strange rhythms of growing up - noticing that she is different, knowing that she is suffering - as she learns, too early in her life, that people, and the love and safety we seek in them, are as shifting and beautiful and indeterminable as the shadows and reflections in a lake. And then there are the rest of us.
[A list of the pieces that have appeared to date in this series, with the links to them, is here.]