Belfast, Northern Ireland—where I’m from—is shouldered by hills that aren’t quite mountains, a landscape that’s large enough to make the city feel small without making the world around it seem indecipherably vast. From the top of those hills, on a clear day, the town looks like a wildly overgrown village, beautiful and sturdy, as though all of the rain and salt wind and history it’s weathered across the years have given it a special kind of durability—or perhaps that’s just how we’re inclined think about anything with which we are deeply familiar. Not unusually, it wasn’t until after I had left Belfast and come back that I started to really become conscious of what it was like living there. One of the first things I remember noticing was the prevalent sense of limit: the fact that no matter where you are in the city, its edges—the hills, the sea—are never far from sight. My father was a historian of the British Empire. He grew up in Belfast and left for Cambridge and afterwards returned and worked in Northern Ireland for most of the rest of his life. When I was younger, I sometimes thought it must have been a disappointment to him to have ended up so wedded to the (as I saw it) rather unassuming place that he started from, when his career might’ve taken him anywhere else in the English-speaking world. Later I realized I was wrong about that. He loved Belfast. It wasn’t a burden to stay.
The landscapes in Marilynne Robinson’s four novels—which are set in Iowa and the mountainous northwest of the USA—have little enough in common with Belfast or Northern Ireland. But I did come to them as a way of making myself at home. In 2012, when I moved to the American Midwest to start a doctorate, one of my professors recommended Gilead (2004) and Home (2008) as stories that had helped him to situate himself after he had arrived in Chicago from the East Coast. If he explained exactly how they helped him, I’ve forgotten what he said, and I don’t think the books had quite the same effect on me, since the eerie spaciousness of that part of the world isn’t something I expect to ever become used to. Even so, I’m grateful for the introduction. In recent years, as her fame has accelerated, Robinson has become a quasi-mainstream public intellectual—interviewed by President Obama in the pages of the New York Review of Books about the state of the country, for example—and it isn’t hard to see how she suits the part, since her writing (both fiction and nonfiction) is a reservoir of subtly expansive and intelligent ideas about loyalty, kindness, social cohesion and freedom of thought. Yet it’s also true that, in their hearts, the four novels aren’t political. They’re stories about homelessness and solitude.
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.1 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.2 “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.3 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.
Freud said the only reason we don’t think of mourning as a pathological state is that we find it so easy to explain—and surely that’s true, if all it means is that it isn’t hard to identify its cause. Grief itself is a terrible confusion. Helen disappears as completely as her father had. Ruth and Lucille are placed into their grandmother’s care and she looks after them for five years—just as she had looked after her own daughters for five years—until the two young sisters are on the edge of puberty, when she dies. “She cared for us like someone reliving a long day in a dream,” recalls Ruth, “her attention heightened and at the same time baffled by an awareness that this present had passed already, and had had its consequence.” If repetition is in the nature of hell, then the last years of their grandmother’s life had something hellish about them. Why was this old doom replaying itself? It’s only the first instance of a question that occupies the rest of the novel about what it means that humans relive their losses. After a brief interlude in the company of two hapless great-aunties, another spectral reappearance takes place—and Housekeeping enters its main chambers—when Ruth and Lucille are given into the care of their aunt Sylvie, who is the spitting image of their mother.
My grandfather, according to my dad, used to say that the best way to avoid becoming a bitter old man is to avoid being a bitter young man. It’s not clear to me now whether this was meant as a real piece of advice or if it’s a joke about how people can’t change. He—my grandfather—died when I was ten and my memories of him are limited. In photographs, I think he looks kind. He was born in the northeast of England and moved to Northern Ireland to work as a teacher in 1937. Family lore has it that he needed to ask my grandmother to marry him six times before she agreed, though the marriage they eventually had was long and—as much as anyone can know about these things—happy. What did he know about bitterness? My grandfather isn’t spoken of as a troubled man by the people who remember him. But you never really know. Perhaps he had learned firsthand how difficult it is to control a sense of disappointment (because what is bitterness except a stubborn sensitivity to disappointments?) or maybe it was something worse. He lived in Belfast through the years when people were being regularly murdered on the streets. One of my middle names—Walter—is the name of his younger brother, who died of polio in childhood. My own brother shares part of his name with a cousin of ours, another boy who died. I can remember my father telling me that the worst thing he ever had to do in his life was to tell our grandfather the news of that cousin’s death. These days, when I think of that adage about bitterness and bitter men what I hear most of all is a warning. If you can’t find a way to make peace with what you suffer, it will keep on taking your life away from you.
One of the important thoughts that runs all the way through Robinson’s fiction—although as far as I know it’s only stated plainly once, in a passage towards the end of Gilead—is that hell is something we carry inside ourselves. I don’t know much about the theology that appears in these stories, but I do know that there are branches of Christian thought in which hell isn’t described as a punishment, at least not in the sense of something brought down on us from the outside, but more like a form of self-torture. “Hell,” on this view, is a word for the extremities of human loneliness—and to be in hell is always a choice, in some sense, because it’s a refusal to accept yourself as an object of God’s love (and hence not alone, ultimately). Whether or not this is the exact idea that Robinson is working with in her novels, it certainly resonates with them. There is something about the structure of human life that makes it terribly easy for us to hate ourselves. I think that’s what it means to say that hell can be found in every soul, because we all exist in a state of unalterable isolation and yet we hate and fear our loneliness, too—we don’t know how to accept what we are. And the revelatory thing about sorrow is that it removes all of our normal ways of ignoring our sense of deficiency, it exposes that “odd capacity for destitution” that habit conceals, as the authorial voice in Home puts it:
as if by nature we ought to have so much more than nature gives us. As if we are shockingly unclothed when we lack the complacencies of ordinary life. In destitution, even of feeling or purpose, a human being is more hauntingly human and vulnerable to kindnesses because there is the sense that things should be otherwise, and then the thought of what is wanting and what alleviation would be, and how the soul could be put at ease, restored. At home.
That injured sense that things should be otherwise—that life has been robbed of its rightful shape, somehow—is what will fester and become poisonous, in the worst circumstances. It’s what makes people bitter, and worse than bitter.
“Perhaps all unsheltered people are angry in their hearts,” thinks Ruth in Housekeeping, and the point is that shelter is always impermanent—so there’s nothing unbreakably secure about our hearts, either. Sorrow is a predatory thing. It carries on without mercy, and it consumes, and sooner or later it shows us the truth. There is no home on earth.
We could also say that someone destitute is suffering from a question. Why has this happened? Housekeeping imagines what it might be like if you could never turn that question off. Although in the end it pulls their lives in two utterly different directions, the catastrophe that befalls Ruth and Lucille has the same underlying effect—what each girl suffers from is a kind of chronic, inconsolable wakefulness. When you’re a child, in the best circumstances, you never need to think about whether your parents love you or not: their love is one of the world’s foundations. But because the two sisters are only half-formed people when their mother abandons them (Ruth is seven, Lucille a little younger) sorrow and uncertainty are sown into their minds at a disastrously early age, and the world is made terrifyingly cryptic. “We had spent our lives watching and listening with the constant sharp attention of children lost in the dark,” explains Ruth. “It seemed that we were bewilderingly lost in a landscape that, with any light at all, would be wholly familiar.” The plot itself mimics the stutters and gropings of a mind trying to absorb a psychic trauma; full of unities that are first broken and then eerily restored, like bad memories made flesh. First the girls take the place of their grandmother’s lost children, then Sylvie takes the place of the girls’ drowned mother, and finally Ruth becomes like a new sister to her aunt. The cumulative effect is “much like dreaming,” as the narrator puts it, in a different context, “because the motion was always the same, and was necessary, and arduous, and without issue, and repeated, not as one motion in a series, but as the same motion repeated …”
As Robinson frames it, what the two sisters learn—before they even have the language or the conceptual apparatus to identify it—is how catastrophically unreliable the world’s appearances are. Lucille’s response, as it plays out over the course of the novel, is to flee into the pseudo-sanctuary represented by conformity. She wants to fix appearances and to know how they can be maintained. She’s “normal” in the sense that she does what most of us do whenever we catch sight of our loneliness: she hides it from herself. (Conformity is a type of painkiller, but—in an image that Robinson returns to again and again in Housekeeping—the relief it offers is like staring at your reflection and believing you aren’t alone.)
Ruth is different. The narrator compulsively attempts to look through appearances, to discern whatever messages or omens they might hide. Her immense imaginative restlessness is the premise that allows Robinson to set off on all of the wonderful, soaring passages of thought that punctuate the story. Riding back into Fingerbone on a freight-train boxcar in the early morning, Ruth stares out across the open water:
Portly white clouds, bellied like cherubs, sailed across the sky, and the sky and the lake were an elegant azure. One can imagine that, at the apex of the Flood, when the globe was a ball of water, came the day of divine relenting, when Noah’s wife must have opened the shutters upon a morning designed to reflect an enormous good nature. We can imagine that the Deluge rippled and glistened, and that the clouds, under an altered dispensation, were purely ornamental. True, the waters were full of people—we knew the story from our childhood. The lady at her window might have wished to be with the mothers and uncles, among the dance of bones, since this is hardly a human world, here in the fatuous light, admiring the plump clouds. Looking out at the lake one could believe that the Flood had never ended. If one is lost on the water, any hill is Ararat. And below is always the accumulated past, which vanishes but does not vanish, which perishes and remains.
Amidst the brilliant array of ideas and imagery, there’s a subtle point here about what separates Ruth from ordinary society. Fingerbone stands on the edge of a lake full of bodies. Everybody in the town “knows” that there are human remains in the water, but they forget, and that’s how life goes on. (Just think: if it weren’t the sort of thought they could suppress, how different would the community be?) By contrast—and for reasons that aren’t hard to decipher—when the narrator looks at the water’s surface she sees the reflections of drowned and separated families, God’s disfavor and catastrophes beyond human explanation. Her visions are plainly a kind of torment to her, but on the book’s own terms they’re a more lucid response than her sister’s willful (and hence doomed) forgetfulness.
Why has this happened? Hanging over everything else in Housekeeping is the shade of Helen, the story’s lost cause. But until a long and almost unbearably luminous passage near the end of the book, she barely features as a direct object of thought. We’re never told what the girls’ mother was thinking as she drove back to Fingerbone with her children, and although it seems obvious that Helen was drowning long before she threw herself in the lake, her reasons are never shared. She’s a vision of hell—something that can only be guessed at from the outside. “Our mother swept and dusted, kept our anklets white, and fed us vitamins,” says the narrator, remembering their life before the catastrophe. “We had never heard of Fingerbone until she brought us here, knew nothing of our grandmother until we were left to wait for her on her porch.” Once, a letter had arrived from the girls’ purported father, Reginald, which Helen tore up without opening. (“It’s best” was all she said.) Nothing else. Ruth—whose imagination is so wide and miraculous in other spheres—never once tries to put herself in her mother’s head.
But still, why has this happened? The question can’t be expunged. One of the clear suggestions in Housekeeping, in fact, is that the special pain of abandonment is that it compounds the mystery. You should be able to understand why it happened, because you should be able to know what the person who hurt you was thinking. But what you’re left with is an excruciating puzzle. The two girls can’t even be sure that their memories of Helen are correct. As they get older, the sisters begin to disagree fiercely about the nature of their mother’s death (Lucille insists it was an accident, Ruth is convinced it was suicide) and about what sort of person she was (Ruth thinks she was an abandoner, Lucille says she was a victim). Years ago, I remember my father telling me that if you didn’t write down your memories of someone, you would lose them—and I still recall, or I can imagine, the distress in his voice. It was in the aftermath of another death in our family. Because he was a historian, he would have known how dubious unaided memories are. But I wonder now if he wasn’t also trying to warn me about a type of loneliness it’s hard to envision when you’re young—the despair of being stranded with images that you can neither trust nor escape, a level of wretched confusion beyond even the wretched confusions of grief. Why has this happened? Where is our mistake? Your mother tells you to wait quietly and then you never see her again. Your husband leaves for work and then vanishes from the earth. Your house is full and then it’s empty.
We don’t believe in our hearts that the world will ever change. But it does. “One is left with dreams that these specters loose their hands from ours and walk away,” laments Ruth, “the curve of the back and the swing of the coat so familiar as to imply that they should be permanent fixtures of the world, when in fact nothing is more perishable.” But how can you stop yourself from reaching out after them? How can you stop, although it’s agony and it makes no difference and it answers nothing? In the narrator’s memory, her mother’s face is just as familiar and unyielding as it ever was in life, a mask over a secret, unrecoverable. And yet her mind keeps on circling, returning, pulling downwards and backwards, murderously, until—in the worst moments—it’s as though God’s sorrow is beating through the very channels of her brain. “What is thought … what is dreaming, but swim and flow, and the images they seem to animate?” Ruth asks, in despair, and goes on:
The images are the worst of it. It would be terrible to stand outside in the dark and watch a woman in a lighted room studying her face in a window, and to throw a stone at her, shattering the glass, and then to watch the window knit itself up again and the bright bits of lip and throat and hair piece themselves seamlessly again into that unknown, indifferent woman. It would be terrible to see a shattered mirror heal to show a dreaming woman tucking up her hair. And here we find our great affinity with water, for like reflections on water our thoughts will suffer no changing shock, no permanent displacement. They mock us with their seeming slightness. If they were more substantial—if they had weight and took up space—they would sink or be carried away in the general flux. But they persist, outside the brisk and ruinous energies of the world. I think it must have been my mother’s plan to rupture this bright surface, to sail beneath it into very blackness, but here she was, wherever my eyes fell, and behind my eyes, whole and in fragments, a thousand images of one gesture, never dispelled but rising always, inevitably, like a drowned woman.
On the wall facing the desk where I work when I’m at home in Belfast is a photograph of my grandfather holding me on his lap when I was about fifteen months old. In the picture, I’m leaning my head back against his chest with my eyes closed, grinning, and he looks delighted in the way people usually are when they feel a small child taking pleasure in their attention. The photo is one of those things that’s been decorating our home for as long as I can remember. From what my mother tells me, it was taken in the summer of 1988, in Annalong, a village on the Northern Irish coast. In which case, it would have been a little over a year before my younger brother was born—and only a few months after our cousin had died, the same cousin whose first name became part of my brother’s name. For years and years I’ve looked at that picture of my grandfather and not once, until last winter, did it ever occur to me to think about it in those terms. There’s me on his lap. As for him—how often would he have looked at me when I was a boy and seen an image of his other grandson, the one who was lost? How often would he have put his arms around me—or my brother, or any of his six grandchildren—and found himself thinking about that other child, the one who couldn’t be held? In Housekeeping, Ruth says that “memory pulls us forward” and I think what she means is that grief unfastens our minds. If there is any solace in it, that’s where it is found—in the way it makes your imagination bloom, forces you to search. Without my noticing it, that photograph of my grandfather had grown and multiplied in my thoughts. It became a comfort, unexpectedly, because there’s something about his smile that makes me think that he couldn’t possibly have had a bitter heart. Or as if he knew on some adamantine level that our sorrows are not just reductions—they demonstrate our blessings, too. But of course I could I just be imagining that, and I have no way of asking him now.
In the same room in Belfast, among the shelves, there are books of history written by my grandfather, my father and an uncle—all dead men. When that thought first struck me it made me feel so sad I could hardly speak, but there were other days when it only flickered across the front of my mind, or it never came all. The whole winter was like that: sometimes you would beg your own thoughts to stop, and sometimes you felt so ordinary and untouched you couldn’t trust yourself. My mother, my brother and I stayed at home together for a few weeks after my father died. The waves of shock hit all of us, one by one, in rhythms that were mystifying, and then they would abate just as suddenly— and when they did it was hard to say whether reality was coming back or disappearing. Out of the windows at the front of my parents’ apartment, there’s a view across the south of Belfast. In the spring, the air fills up with gulls getting ready to nest and the trees come into leaf, so it looks as if enormous green bubbles are rising up between the houses. You can see the hills and the university where my father worked. You can see the City Hospital, where he had a bed in Ward 6 North. You can see church spires. In the same direction, although it’s hard to make it out, is the school where my grandfather was once a vice-principal. It’s not far from the old Methodist church—now closed—on University Road, where he might well have met my grandmother. His funeral was in that church. In the course of six months, the whole surface of the city changed, as though it were haunted, or as though I were only just seeing it.
One of the most poignant moments in Housekeeping comes almost as an aside, close to the end, when Ruth imagines that if Helen had never killed herself—if their mother “had gone all the way to the edge of the lake to rest her head and close her eyes, and had come back again for our sakes”—then she and Lucille would have lived two more or less ordinary lives. As adults, the sisters “would have laughed together with bitterness and satisfaction at our strangely solitary childhood, in light of which our failings would seem inevitable, and all our attainments miraculous.” They would have proceeded through all of the cycles and frustrations of an unmarked family: Thanksgivings and Christmases alongside their mother, whose reticence would have grown deeper as she aged, and who would have been closed off from them all her life. “Lucille and I would see each other often and almost never talk of other things. Nothing would be more familiar to us than her silence, and her sad, abstracted calm.” If Helen had never vanished, in other words, her daughters would have lived without any intimation of the sorrows she fought. She would have been invisible to them—whereas once she was gone there wasn’t a surface on earth that did not seem to augur her return. There are moments when I see my brother move his hand or utter a phrase and the resemblance to our father is so sharp it’s like an apparition. There are times when I see my maternal grandmother alive again in my mother’s posture or her voice. I should not be able to look in a mirror without seeing my father.
“If I could see my mother,” says Ruth, “it would not have to be her eyes, her hair. I would not need to touch her sleeve”:
There was no more the stoop of her high shoulders. The lake had taken that, I knew. It was so very long since the dark had swum her hair, and there was nothing more to dream of, but often she almost slipped through any door I saw from the side of my eye, and it was she, and not changed, and not perished. She was a music I no longer heard, that rang in my mind, itself and nothing else, lost to all sense, but not perished, not perished.
“Families will not be broken,” she says later. In his work, my father sometimes spoke about Ireland as though it were a broken family. He was thinking about civil conflict—the dismal, recurring event in the island’s history; lethal violence between people who all thought of it as their home. I don’t know how the analogy suggested itself to him, but I can imagine what he saw in it, because he believed—or he hoped—that the ruptures were not absolute. A family torn apart is a family haunted by the thought of restoration; even a divided home is as one in its sorrow. So we are not divided, not utterly.
Art credit: Clare Gallagher