Thursday, May 30, 2013

Book Review: Housekeeping

It's not every day you get to read the acclaimed first novel by one of your favorite authors. Marilynne Robinson published Housekeeping in 1980, and apparently it by itself was enough to establish her reputation as a writer of writers for two decades plus, till in the 2000's she published both Gilead and Home [reviewed here]. I got on the bandwagon at that point, and have also enjoyed her nonfiction, written with the same precise, elegant style, dividing bone from marrow. Her pattern of more frequent recent output seems to me to be another parallel between her and Terrence Malick. That and the indelible, unique impression they each make.

This book is remarkable, showing the same focus on families -- this one broken deeply -- with the same surprising sunbreaks of upward-eddying transendence, meditations on what are really theological subjects but with non-theological language. Whereas Robinson's other novels are warm, even cozy, this one is cold and sharp, transient where the others are rooted, lake-blue where the others are sun-yellow. Like a train it may start slow but it picks up speed and the last chapter is in my opinion truly breathtaking. Robinson is simply worth reading, and this book is the proper entry point for those on the English-lit side of the spectrum, where the chill edge of loneliness is described in painfully clear prose. Other readers may do well to start with Gilead, in which the narrator is a pastor, or with her non-fiction Absence of Mind, in which Robinson takes on Freud and Dawkins. All are remarkable, for some very similar reasons and for some that could not be more different. Housekeeping was nothing like what I expected and yet it is undeniably Robinson's book and it reminds me all over again why she is one of my favorites.

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