Ever since President Obama identified Gilead as one of his favourite contemporary books, Marilynne Robinson’s reputation has been dominated by her trilogy (including Home and Lila) about the Ames family of Iowa. Yet, almost 25 years before, Robinson completed and published a first novel which prefigures the mood and preoccupations of almost all her later work.
For me, Housekeeping remains her masterpiece, an unforgettable declaration of imaginative and narrative intent. It is also, as many critics have pointed out, the work of an American writer, and Calvinist, intimately at home with the Bible and the great transcendentalists, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau and Herman Melville (No 17 in this series).
In the simple spirit of these masters, Robinson’s prose, replete with metaphor and simile, is achingly quotable: “To crave and to have are as like as a thing and its shadow. For when does a berry break upon the tongue as sweetly as when one longs to taste it, and when is the taste refracted into so many hues and savours of ripeness and earth, and when do our senses know any thing so utterly as when we lack it? And here again is a foreshadowing – the world will be made whole. For to wish for a hand on one’s hair is all but to feel it. So whatever we may lose, very craving gives it back to us again.” There’s no one else in America today writing with such natural inner music.