by Marilynne Robinson
(Faber and Faber)
Marilynne Robinson is no stranger to either praise or prizes. Her third novel, Home, recently won this year's Orange Prize for fiction, while her second, 2004's Gilead, earned her both the National Book Critics Circle award and the Pulitzr Prize for Fiction.
Yet when Britain's The Observer newspaper included a work by Robinson in its list of the 100 greatest novels, it was her debut Housekeeping that made the grade.
First published almost 30 years ago in 1982, it opens with what seems to be the most unobtrusive of opening sentences. 'My name is Ruth. I grew up with my younger sister, Lucille, under the care of my grandmother, Mrs Sylvia Foster, and when she died, of her sisters-in-law, Misses Lily and Nona Foster, and when they fled, of her daughter, Mrs Sylvia Fisher.'
Yet even here, at the very start, the delicate balance of Robinson's prose is gently disrupted by those two unsettling words: 'died' and 'fled'.
In many ways, this most nuanced of literary earthquakes sets the tone for Housekeeping as a whole. Set in the fictional town of Fingerbone (a characteristic Robinson pun), Ruth describes a world founded upon seemingly monolithic institutions (the family, the church, the home, the state, American society as a whole), only to expose the faultlines in those superficially strong structures. Note, for instance, that Ruth's brief family tree contains no men and, more to the point, no mother.
The family's history seems to be defined by loss, abandonment, change and uncertainty. Ruth's grandfather, a signalman with the railroad, was killed when the bridge over Fingerbone's lake collapsed and his train (called 'The Fireball' of all things) fell 'into the water like a weasel sliding off a rock'.
Ruth's own father ran off when she and Lucille were little; her mother, in despair, left her two daughters on the doorstep of their grandmother's house, and then in a sinister echo of her father's death commits suicide by driving into the lake.
Foster by name, fostered by nature, Ruth and Lucille are passed among a series of relations like consolations prizes at a village f?te.
The older women (Sylvie, Lily and Nona) absorb the girls into domestic universes organised by housework. Ruth recalls her grandmother 'wearing her widow's black' and carrying out a 'basket of sheets to hang in the spring sunlight ... performing the rituals of the ordinary as an act of faith'. Sylvia, by contrast, embraces the chaos inherent in life, with mixed results.
Lyrical, ambiguous and wise, Housekeeping is not simply one of the finest debut novels of recent times, it is one of the finest novels full stop.