At the start of the current year, I found myself living in Belfast again for the first time in a decade. It was a miserable period, generally, the tail end of a stretch of my life in which it had felt as if the homes I had on either side of the Atlantic were each in the process of decaying or breaking apart. The worst thing was that my father had fallen terminally ill, which is what brought me back to Northern Ireland to stay. I won’t pretend that books are much comfort when serious trouble hits your life—how many things are?—but it’s true that if you’re in a state of chronic distress, you start to become very sensitive to the things that hold your attention. In Belfast and in the months before I came back, a book that I read and reread was Housekeeping (1980), Robinson’s first novel, a story about a damaged family in small-town Idaho. It’s a magical piece of work, part of the fierce pleasure of which, I discovered, is that as you spend more time with it, it’s as though layers of skin are being stripped from your mind, leaving you strangely awake, and available, to your surroundings. I finished Housekeeping for the third time amidst one of the nastiest and most rain-sodden Januaries I can remember, a winter where Belfast felt as if it was being punished for something dire. “And let God purge this wicked sadness away with a flood, and let the waters recede to pools and ponds and ditches, and let every one of them mirror heaven,” says Robinson’s narrator, contemplating all of the calamities of wrongdoing and loss that seem to her like the engines of history itself. “Sometimes I think sorrow is a predatory thing,” she adds later, and I felt like I recognized the thought.
For all of its dreadful gloom, there were also days that winter where it seemed as though I had never been more curious about my city, and I think Housekeeping must have been in my mind then too, since Robinson’s novel is above all about trying to understand the things that have made you what you are. Belfast’s buildings are not, as a rule, very tall, which means that if you find a decent vantage point near the middle of town you’ll normally be rewarded with a panorama. From any such place, you’ll see church spires, perhaps several—only the most visible reminder of the sedimented layers of Christianity that underlie life on the island. The Catholic Church goes back to the beginning of recorded time here: the earliest confirmed date in Irish history is 431 CE, when Palladius, the first bishop of Ireland, was ordained by Pope Celestine I (although whether Palladius ever arrived on Irish soil is unknown). Since then, any number of the defining—and usually bloody—events in Irish history have had Christianity sown through them in one way or another, from the original failure of the Reformation and the various implantations of Protestant settlers, to the partition and sectarian violence of the last century, and the death-haunted politics that are still with us. My grandparents on my father’s side met through the Methodist Church and the schools I attended in Belfast were both Methodist ones. The identity in itself never meant very much to me (I didn’t even go through a fleeting phase of religion as a child) except that it meant I was “Protestant” whether I liked it or not, since everyone in the city had to know which side of the conflict they were nominally on. In another way, of course, there was almost nothing in my life that it did not inform. I’ve wondered sometimes how much of Robinson’s success is because she gives people who are inclined to ignore or forget whatever they might have inherited from Christianity a way of reappraising it. As I say, the environments in her books aren’t at all like the country I grew up in—but the mid-century, pious, mainline Protestant households they depict must bear more than a fleeting resemblance to the homes my paternal grandparents came from. How much of my own character is an image handed down from those homes? More than nothing, surely. All of Robinson’s stories are about transmissions between generations, which is to say that they’re about family, the relentless and inexplicable ways in which families repeat their patterns and even recreate their wounds (and of course Christianity, whatever else it is, is a religion of ruptured families). In the two books my professor recommended, Gilead and Home, fathers break from sons who break from their sons in turn. In Housekeeping, a more mystic and elevated novel, the narrator (whose life is haunted by a doomed mother and a grandfather she’s never seen) imagines human existence as little more than an imitation and reenactment of lives long dead; one shattered home after another, until the end of time. “Every sorrow suggests a thousand songs and every song recalls a thousand sorrows, and so they are infinite in number, and all the same.”
Almost exactly a year before my father died, his mother died, in the nursing home she had lived in for over a decade. Her funeral service was held in Belfast South Methodist Church. I don’t know how often he thought about her afterwards because he wasn’t someone inclined to speak about those things. But how much of his city wouldn’t have reminded him of her, somehow? It is terrible, what we inherit. I read somewhere—but I can’t remember where—that a home is the illusion of a space set off from time. The winter brought us to our senses.
It was the “discovery” of America that made Ireland into a place of real geopolitical importance in sixteenth-century Europe. Whereas previously the island had been little more than a backwater, a province at the edge of the known earth, afterwards it was possible to think of it as a bridgehead to the as-yet-unconquered wealth and territories of the New World. America, that is, made Ireland into something other than a frontier. It’s hard not to love something that takes away your sense of limitation. Perhaps—who knows?—that’s one of the deeper reasons why the United States’ frontier mythologies have always held such a powerful allure where I come from. In her essay “Wilderness,” Robinson describes Housekeeping as a Western—and in fact all of her novels can be thought of as reconfigured members of that tradition, outlaw stories moved from the nineteenth-century borderlands to the notionally stable Union of the 1950s. Like many Westerns, the four books revolve around questions of kinship. But their relocation in time from an “open” country to a “finished” one is symbolic, because the questions they ask aren’t typically to do with the creation of new communities but with what loyalty to an old and limited—and possibly dying—home might entail.
Although it’s slightly facetious, you could describe Robinson’s stories as “middle-aged” Westerns inasmuch as one of their principal themes is about how people come to terms with the loss of former shelters. In each of the two main compartments of her fiction (Housekeeping on the one hand, and the loose trilogy of Gilead, Home and Lila on the other) a wayward and inscrutable loner arrives in an isolated community, carrying trouble with them, albeit not the kind that ends in gunfire. The visitor in each case is someone who had once been part of that community. In the Iowan trilogy, the role is played by Jack Boughton, the “endlessly lonely” son of one of the town of Gilead’s venerable Presbyterian families, who first fled his home at the age of 23 after impregnating a barely educated young girl. In Housekeeping, the outsider is Sylvia Fisher, the aunt of the story’s narrator, who is named Ruth. The town Ruth belongs to (or at least inhabits) is Fingerbone, based on Robinson’s own birthplace of Sandpoint, Idaho. “Fingerbone was never an impressive town,” Ruth tells us. If it was remarkable “for anything besides loneliness and murder, it was for religious zeal of the purest and rarest kind.” Sylvia, or Sylvie, left Fingerbone at nineteen and did not return until she was 35. From what little we are able to gather, she has mostly lived the life of a drifter in between.
When I first read these stories—with the exception of Lila, which is the only one not set in a single location—I remember being taken in by the strangely edgeless sense of time. Gilead and Home are both set in 1956, and while they make passing reference to events in the country at large, the dominant impression is of a sleepy and changeless locale, practically unmoored from U.S. history (although it isn’t, which is part of the point). In Housekeeping the same effect is even more pronounced. It’s possible—if you know anything about Robinson’s biography and pay attention to the handful of period markers in the text—to make a fair guess that the book is set in 1956 as well, but the date is never mentioned. Indeed, the whole apparatus of social timekeeping and record-making seems to have no more than a fragile grip on Ruth’s story, which steadily moves beyond and outside the patterns that civilization has made on the land. The wilderness, the great space and silence, the ease with which one might imagine no human structures there at all, is the real mark of life in Fingerbone. The town sits beside a colossal body of water, a lake that is a reservoir to the community in more than one respect and from which its existence is inseparable. “It is true that one is always aware of the lake in Fingerbone, or the deeps of the lake, the lightless, airless waters below,” says Ruth:
When the ground is plowed in the 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. At the foundation is the old lake, which is smothered and nameless and altogether black. Then there is Fingerbone, the lake of charts and photographs, which is permeated by sunlight and sustains green life and innumerable fish, and in which one can look down in the shadow of a dock and see stony, earthy bottom, more or less as one sees dry ground. And above that, the lake that rises in the spring and turns the grass dark and coarse as reeds. And above that the water suspended in sunlight, sharp as the breath of an animal, which brims inside this circle of mountains.
I admire the Iowan novels greatly (Home in particular is beautiful) but I have no doubt that Housekeeping is the masterpiece among Robinson’s books; the feral genius in comparison to the more domesticated pleasures of its companions. Although it’s narrated by a character who is plausibly a borderline psychotic, it might be one of the most realistic novels I’ve ever read. Ruth tells her story from an undisclosed moment in the future, several years after the events she describes take place, and we’re given to believe that her account is the final result of a ferocious need to make sense of what she experienced. The narrative voice shifts registers in a way that mimics the design of the novel itself, which is “realist” with a strain of teasing unreality, full of symmetries and uncanny doublings and brightly layered symbolism. Ruth recounts table conversations, wanders the landscape, fights with her younger sister, behaves in any number of ways like a recognizably uneasy teenage girl, but she also lapses into dazzling reveries that amalgamate phantoms and lore and Biblical imagery. What gives the novel its tremendous power, though, is how precise it is about a very ordinary kind of pain. Housekeeping is a story about loved ones who are dead—and about how we keep them with us.
In Ruth’s imagination, water is an agent of ruin, and her home is suffused with it. If it rains heavily in the winter while the ground is frozen, the whole town floods, leaving its houses “like so many spilled and foundered arks.” Water is the medium of God’s punishments. Whenever anyone dies from the elements in Housekeeping, it’s water that kills them. “The lake must be full of people,” says Sylvie to Ruth. “I’ve heard stories all my life.” No wonder: the remains of the catastrophe that began their own family’s troubles (although, as Ruth observes, who can say where our sorrows really begin?) is hidden beneath its surface. Years before Ruth was born, a train slipped off the long bridge crossing the water in the middle of the night. The townspeople speculated that, after it fell, the carriages might have tumbled into some deeper part of the basin, where they could not then be discovered. In any case, the machine was lost. “The derailment, though too bizarre in itself to have either significance or consequence, was nevertheless the most striking event in the town’s history, and as such was prized.” For Ruth, by contrast, the story causes nightmares: her grandfather—Sylvie’s father—was on board the train when it vanished. After he disappeared, her grandmother was left at home with Sylvie and two other young daughters, Molly and Helen. Robinson’s description of the strange, treacherous peace that can settle on a household in the wake of a cataclysm is terribly vivid:
Time and air and sunlight bore wave and wave of shock, until all the shock was spent, and time and space and light grew still again and nothing seemed to tremble, and nothing seemed to lean. The disaster had fallen out of sight, like the train itself, and if the calm that followed it was not greater than the calm that came before it, it had seemed so. And the dear ordinary had healed as seamlessly as an image on water.
It’s the repetition of the word “seemed” that indicates trouble (so too, once you start to digest the book’s symbolism, the idea that life had healed “like an image on water”). But the trouble has become something more obscure, not easily separated from the normal course of life. After five years, the three girls leave home. Molly joins a missionary society and vanishes from the book. Helen elopes with a man named Reginald Stone, marries him in Nevada and sets up home in Seattle, returning to Idaho briefly in order to mend fences with her mother. Sylvie, the youngest sister, also departs and appears to have been married at some point, too, although the only surviving evidence by the time she returns to Fingerbone is the name she took—Fisher. “One year my grandmother had three quiet daughters and the next year the house was empty.” What had happened? Nothing extraordinary. Nothing that could be easily understood as ominous, or wicked, or deathly. But it’s as though a wound had been left to fester and spread invisibly. After seven and a half years, Helen returns, this time with two little daughters in tow, Ruth and Lucille. She arrived “on a Sunday morning, when she knew her mother would not be at home, and she only stayed long enough to settle Lucille and me on the bench in the screened porch, with a box of graham crackers to prevent conflict and restlessness.” Then Helen drove her borrowed car out of town to the top of an nearby cliff, and over the edge into the lake.