I'd meant to get around to reading Marilynne Robinson for some time, since her prizewinning work has been so much praised; I'm also drawn to writers who don't write that many novels, as it's usually an indication of quality. Housekeeping is her first novel and deals with the orphans Ruth and Lucille and the adults who try to raise them in the isolated town of Fingerbone, by a lake and among the mountains of north-west America, notable for its dampness and its proximity to a long railway bridge across the lake. Ruth narrates the story; the elder daughter, she can remember life with her mother Helen before the girls came to Fingerbone and the care of her grandmother. In dense, poetic language, Ruth describes the town, the people, their life with their respected and respectable grandmother and, after her death, their increasingly erratic aunt Sylvie, and the choices the two girls will make as they grow up.
Robinson makes the landscape of her novel vivid to the reader, the power and magnetism of the lake developed so that it is almost a character in its own right; the growth and decay of the family home becomes a depiction of the lifespan of a living being. The language of the novel is rich and detailed, humorous as well as sad, achieving a great subtlety. The book brings great empathy to its characters, opening the reader's mind to the possibilities of those moments when choices direct future paths entirely, and whether those choices are in fact choices at all. Ruth's narrative voice is used with expertise; what Ruth does not mention, or mentions only in passing and without apparent comprehension, contribute as much to the meaning of the book as her more detailed retellings of her life. This is a book to be read and re-read, and I have the pleasure of her three other novels ahead of me.