Posted by: Lizzie Ross | April 29, 2010

A train runs through it

Housekeeping, Marilynne Robinson (1981), Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 219 pp.

I have a memory of my childhood self, small enough to fit sideways in my bunk bed so that I faced the window right next to it and could see through the narrow gap between the two houses behind ours, to the next street (possibly even two streets away), where buses occasionally passed. At night, those lit buses were like little worlds sailing by, and for several weeks I couldn’t fall asleep before I’d seen at least one pass. When I look at a map of that neighborhood now, I can’t imagine why a side street would be on a bus route, yet that memory is vivid, still with me 50 years later. Can I trust that memory?

Early in this novel, the narrator explains why she’s having trouble remembering her mother: “memories are by their nature fragmented, isolated, and arbitrary as glimpses one has at night through lighted windows.” When you’ve read enough of this melancholy book, you can’t help putting those windows onto the side of a train, passing through the night, ephemeral and tantalizing. You want to get on that train, sit at a window, and look out at the dark scenery, all the while knowing that you’ll see only your own reflection. All the while knowing that your wish to be on that train is only your wish to escape your memories.

Setting: a small railroad town in the Pacific Northwest, with a spectacular train crash in its distant past (we learn of this on the novel’s third page). Two sisters lose their parents and then their grandmother, and eventually end up in the care of a loopy aunt who has spent much of her adult life homeless and transient, riding the rails with the hoboes. Aunt Sylvie sits in the dark, serves meals from cans, never cleans, sleeps fully clothed (on top of the blanket), and allows her nieces to go awol from school for months.

The older sister, Ruth, a young teen moving into adulthood and finding her way through loss and change, tells the story, but in a voice mature with wisdom painfully gained. Unlike fictional memoirists like David Copperfield, Ruth uses no foreshadowing of what’s to come, yet still builds tension and momentum in every scene up to the crisis.

I wrote above that Housekeeping is melancholy. It’s also lyrical, with piercing imagery. In this excerpt, Ruth and her sister have been rummaging through their late grandmother’s memorabilia, and Ruth envisions the wrecked train rising from the bottom of the lake.

It was perhaps only from watching gulls fly like sparks up the face of clouds that dragged rain the length of the lake that I imagined that such an enterprise might succeed. Or it was from watching gnats sail out of the grass, or from watching some discarded leaf gleaming at the top of the wind. Ascension seemed at such times a natural law. If one added to it a law of completion–that everything must finally be made comprehensible–then some general rescue of the sort I imagined my aunt to have undertaken would be inevitable. For why do our thoughts turn to some gesture of a hand, the fall of a sleeve, some corner of a room on a particular anonymous afternoon, even when we are asleep, and even when we are so old that our thoughts have abandoned other business? What are all these fragments for, if not to be knit up finally?

I find it difficult to read this book quickly. Robinson’s language demands savoring. So take your time with this one; think of it as a week-long banquet to which you return when you’re ready for more. And when you’ve read the last page, sit quietly and see how far you can get, knitting your own memory fragments into something complete and comprehensible.

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