5 October 2010
The first sentence is ‘My name is Ruth.’ The second gives us her sister’s name and the names of the four women who looked after them as they grew up. And each name has a relationship appended to it – grandmother, sisters-in-law, daughter – and details of marital status: Mrs, plus married name, or Miss. There’s one missing: their mother. Gulp.
Women, blood-ties, nurture. There are marriages, so there must be men – but not really: now, about a quarter of the way in, only the lives of girls and women have been fleshed out. The fourth woman has just arrived, the girls’ aunt, ‘Mrs Sylvie Fisher’, and up to now we’ve had various childhoods spent within the tight parameters those first sentences suggest. And one of the parameters is place. Their lives seem to be defined not by their small lakeside town – they keep themselves to themselves – but by the primordial lake itself. It’s always there, apparently infinite, and sometimes it consumes lives.
After the opening sentences, Marilynne Robinson takes the story back a generation or two. The girls never meet their grandfather, the only man given any kind of substance in the novel so far, because the lake gobbles him up when their mother is still a child. A railway worker, he disappears with a whole trainload of passengers as it slides off the rails and into so many fathoms of water that nobody ever finds it. Divers brave the first filaments of that winter’s ice, and one boy comes back up with a description of the smoothness of the window-glass at the furthest depth he can manage. But by making him a notorious liar, Robinson makes sure nobody believes him – and adds another layer to the water’s mythic power. This lake isn’t a topographical feature, it’s a brooding presence like the one where Grendel’s mother lives.
I keep coming back to the lake because Robinson does. There is a level that can be plumbed, but beneath this is is nothing but mysterious darkness. And the visible level has just as much power: it often rises to flood the townspeople’s orchards and cellars. Even the air above it is somehow just another of its watery layers, the one where people live. In winter its ice is cleared for skating – but only so far. Nobody except the girls skates to the edge of this swept ice, and the view beyond is infinite. What else would it be?
The winter when the girls can skate so far out is the one when their hopeless, well-meaning maiden aunts are unable to offer them any of what they need. But I’m jumping the gun: the girls must be almost in their teens by now, and before this we’ve had a family history told more or less chronologically. It doesn’t feel rushed to have the growing up of two generations of girls compressed into three chapters. Robinson has a way of conflating periods of years with a single season, or even a single evening in a household with no men. Important events come along – like the marriages of the girls’ mother and one of her sisters – but they cause hardly a ripple because nobody sticks around except the widowed grandmother. She has her own vision of the straightforward trajectory of her life: she knows she will meet her husband again – and surely, she thinks, death will have made him a bit more reasonable.
This isn’t really a novel about the developmental stages of growing up; it’s hardly even about them as individuals. Occasionally we catch a glimpse of different personalities or hair-colour, but such details often come as a sort of list and Robinson’s manner of doing it is only just on this side of perfunctory. Anyway. One generation grows up and moves away – two with husbands we never meet after the weddings, one to a life of missionary work which is no less sketchy. I can’t remember how long the grandmother is left alone…. not long, because the girls’ mother leaves them at her house when she’s out and drives off a cliff in a borrowed car. We don’t ask why, because this isn’t the sort of novel where questions like that get answered. It becomes another event, like the train going into the lake.
The grandmother, the archetype of the book’s title, looks after them into her old age – a few years – and the great-aunts step in for a winter. Luckily the youngest aunt, the one who hasn’t been in touch for years and years – so don’t bother to ask – makes contact and, as soon as she knows the girls need to be looked after, arrives to do it. They expect her to leave, but we’ve heard 50-odd pages earlier that she isn’t going to. That’s all right then.
I realise now that most of the forward gallop of the narrative takes place in the first long chapter. Robinson slows it down during Chapters 2 and 3 for the maiden aunts’ winter sojourn and the arrival of Sylvie. It practically comes to a standstill in Chapter 4 as the new regime is heralded – it really is as direct and immediate as that – by a quick thaw and a rise in the lake that covers most of the houses in the town to the first floor. While there’s still a mass of melting snow around, the girls make a sculpture, and it’s of a woman turning her face resolutely into the wind. As they make her, she’s an important presences for them – but she melts into a ‘dog-yellowed hump’ by the afternoon. Goodbye mother.
In other words, Robinson imbues Sylvie’s first days in the house with significance. We aren’t a bit surprised when the tortured, wrenching fields of ice on the lake shriek all through the day and night and do their best to bring down the railway bridge. The little family is lucky: their house is on a rise and only floods to a depth of four inches. They are separate from from the rest of Fingerbone – I’d forgotten to mention the town’s comedy name – in this as in so many other ways. As will emerge over the spring and summer – and the spring and summer after that. Robinson seems to assign seasons to characters, and these are Sylvie’s, with night not falling until long past the girls’ usual bedtimes. Their aunt likes to eat in the dark, so what can they do?
As the novel heads towards its half-way point Robinson spends time on giving her three main characters more individuality than we’ve seen in anyone so far. At first Ruth, our narrator, tells us that looking back on these days she thinks of herself and Lucille as a single consciousness. When Lucille starts to truant, Ruth joins her by the lake or in the forest – and Sylvie only makes the most cursory of efforts to stop them. In her second year in the house the girls’ unofficial summer vacation starts in March. But slowly we see Lucille shearing off from her, reaching puberty before her despite being the younger sister, and becoming more attached to the opinion of the town in ways that Ruth, like all those women before her, has no interest in.
Sylvie is an embarrassment to Lucille now. It took a month for her to stop wearing her shoes in bed, and she still sleeps in her clothes. Nothing about her is conventional, or what Lucille thinks of as sensible. Clothes and shoes she buys for the girls are pretty but impractical and her wanderings, along with a lot of other signs, make Ruth think of her as itinerant. Lucille’s questions about her married life, children, places where she’s lived all reach a dead end. Except… we do find out her husband, one of the novel’s shadowy men, was a sailor who fought in the Pacific. So, for the first time, we can begin to make a guess about the decade of the 20th Century we’re now in. Before this, references to anything more modern than a steam-train – electricity, a telephone call from the school – have seemed out of place.
I can’t decide which seems stranger, the day-to-day lives of these three or the town of Fingerbone itself. Ruth, almost by default, is becoming a character in her own right. But she’s spent her life adapting to others, including her sister whose awkward opinions, she tells us, she simply goes along with. In this watery place she’s practically invisible – the school has given up on trying to do anything about her and her sister’s absences – but that doesn’t make her observations neutral. She tells us her impressions, but they are always based on the quotidian, on whatever she can see or feel for herself.
A drawer in the grandmother’s old room (where Sylvie now sleeps on the bed rather than in it) contains the usual collection of random photographs and objects, but to Ruth there’s a rightness about them. In Fingerbone, if there were fragments of the true cross or any of the holy relics usually found a million miles from there, well, they would fit in. The town, just like the house – like, I suppose, Ruth’s whole world – is full of objects, and in her narrative, things take on an almost magical existence. If the house and lake are a fairytale realm separate from the world, it’s because she says it is and I’m ok with it because Marilynne Robinson makes it so convincing.
But… we have to be careful of the stories people tell in this book: the boy who says he found the train underwater might or might not have been telling the truth… and neither of the girls knows whether to believe Sylvie’s endless stories of the people she’s met on buses and along the road. We don’t even know whether to believe Lucille’s original reason for truanting following strong circumstantial evidence that she cheated in a test. Ruth believes her – why on earth should she be bothered about a test result? – but we don’t have to. We take Ruth’s word for all this because it sounds good, but maybe Robinson wants us to remember that it’s only one version. Maybe.
I can’t remember the last time a novel kept surprising me as this one does. Chapter 7 appears to be a continuation of the previous one: Lucille’s separation from her sister and aunt in pursuit of a more or less conventional mid-20th Century girlhood. Following the serial truancies we know about, the girls decide it’s time to go to school again. And, this being the world it is, the school is ok with this. After a few months – Robinson is happy to glide over time when she wants, just as she can slow it right down when it suits her – they are both doing well. The principal is content with their ‘attitude’, and we believe Ruth when she tells us she has absolutely no idea what he’s talking about. She’s doing what she always does, fitting into whatever mould somebody provides for her. Why wouldn’t her teachers love it?
This isn’t the real surprise, and nor is Lucille’s decision one day to go and live with one of the school’s spinsterish teachers. Come to think of it, nor is Ruth’s change of mind at the end of that chapter, to take the next day off to join Sylvie, who wants to show her something. Now that Lucille’s gone, Ruth might as well go along with this other plan instead of lumpishly failing to behave in the way her sister wants – failing, that is, to be Lucille.
The long Chapter 8 is the surprise, although Robinson has prepared us for everything in it before now. Nearly all the action takes place over 24 hours, and for pages Robinson doesn’t so much slow the action down as bring it to a complete standstill. At a literal level, Sylvie rows them both over to a part of the lake where there are the collapsed and overgrown ruins of old timber houses. Sylvie does that thing she does, and Ruth realises she’s gone. After hours she comes back, rows them back to the railway bridge, but becomes tired. They drift through the night, find themselves by the railway line and climb into a boxcar back into town. Lucille sees them walking through the town like vagrants, and later comes to – what? – remonstrate. However. ‘I’m sure she spoke to me in all sober kindness, but I could not hear a word she said.’
During their day in the ruins of earlier generations’ lives Sylvie seems to be on familiar territory for her. Nothing she does is surprising, from the way she ignores the angry shouts of the man whose rowing-boat she often steals for the day to her matter-of-fact assurance that there are children in and around the wrecks of houses if only you are patient enough to wait for them. As Ruth spends the long day alone, everything blurs. The absurd idea of there being children around stops being absurd as, somehow, Sylvie’s consciousness seeps into her along with the cold and damp. After Sylvie’s return, she’s become merged into the still-grieving Ruth’s idea of her dead mother, and it seems mutual. The maternal gestures – Sylvie wraps her in her coat for the trip back across the lake, and for the whole long November night, and has Ruth lying between her feet as she rows – make Ruth dare to utter her mother’s name, ‘Helen’. Earlier, she has imagined the children as presences around her just out of sight and, like Ruth and Lucille two winters ago, they are trying to recreate their mother from snow and ice.
The lake has been a different sort of presence throughout the chapter, sometimes seeming so infinite it reminds Ruth of the Biblical flood in which every mountain becomes an Ararat. (I’m amazed that I didn’t find all this completely overblown.) By the time they get back to the railway bridge it’s Sylvie who gets Ruth to imagine the passengers on the train beneath the water – and, because, its her saying it, she thinks of all the non-paying passengers who must have gone under with it. As exhaustion morphs into a kind of shared psychotic state, a world beneath the lake, and a world beyond death, are as real as anything in Ruth’s everyday life. She remembers finding her grandmother, her posture in death (or so Ruth says) exultant: in death she will have been welcomed by all those familiar people, at last.
A couple of chapters back I described how Ruth seems to disappear into invisibility. She does this at a literal level, adopting a stoop with which she doesn’t merely attempt to draw attention away from her height but to deny her presence altogether. All through the middle chapters of the book she invites us to see her in terms of what she isn’t, and what she doesn’t do: she doesn’t make friends, she doesn’t try to make the most of her looks – and when Lucille starts to do these things she leaves Ruth behind. For me, Chapter 8 is Robinson’s way of reminding us that it’s Ruth’s consciousness that has brought us all this. The lake, the town, the generations of women – these are elements of a story we now realise only Ruth could have told, because we’ve seen some of what is going on inside.
To the end
I’m astonished, and I’m trying to work out why. It might be to do with the way memory, and a child’s imagination, and dreaming, and those familial connections that go deeper than anybody in the family ever talks about – gulp – are all somehow evoked in this story of girls and women thousands of miles away from any of my own experience. Except… that’s only true at a literal level, just as the rather humdrum afterlife of Ruth and Sylvie as drifters might be true at a literal level. There are other levels, especially in this book, and anyone who has ever felt as a child the sting of feeling different, or not understanding why everyone else seems to be in on some vital but forever mysterious project – and doesn’t every child feel that? – is going to recognise a lot of Ruth’s inner life. What we see there is an intensity of feeling somehow separated from any kind of social awareness or understanding, and while it seems extraordinary it doesn’t feel unfamiliar.
[Later – after a book group discussion]
But I’m not telling you the plot. Sylvie seems to have decided, amongst her other withdrawals from society, to withdraw from adulthood into perpetual adolescence. And by the time we reach these final chapters she’s almost completed her project of taking Ruth with her. If this sounds deliberate, as though she’s somehow grooming Ruth for a life of literal and moral vagrancy, that’s not how it feels. But it feels like that to the townspeople of Fingerbone, and the outside world makes its presence felt more in these three short chapters than at any time before. It arrives in the form of women doing their best with casseroles and excruciating attempts at friendly visits, and in the form of the first man we’ve had properly described to us since the grandfather in Chapter 1.
It’s no accident that the full force of the law should be represented by the bulkily upholstered male presence of the sheriff. He is as embarrassed as the women who visit, but that doesn’t matter. He is convention personified, and doesn’t say anything to Sylvie about her care of Ruth that anybody reading could disagree with. Sylvie realises she has lost. She looks around the house that has now fallen into dilapidation – ok, it’s Ruth who’s looking, but she now sees what Sylvie sees – and she makes the sort of effort to clean up that Bob Ewell makes in To Kill a Mockingbird when he’s to appear in a courtroom. Like him, her efforts to clean up are not going to be able to disguise a lifetime of living with no regard for the niceties society defines as normal. So…
…she has a bonfire. What else would she do? But it’s as though she realises that cosmetic changes are pointless, and stronger measures are needed. Why stop at burning two years’ worth of yesterday’s scavenged newspapers? She starts on the house, and soon there’s no way out of this fix but – out, away, back to the hobo existence which, inside her head, she’s never left. And we know who’s going with her, over the railway bridge that from the start has carried big signs on it saying Look how significant I am. Crossing it is life-changing for Ruth, and it’s possible to read all the subsequent pages as a metaphor of their deaths by drowning – joining how many others? – in that bloody lake.
Certainly, none of the life Ruth describes afterwards – humdrum, as I said – has any of the vividness we expect from this narrator. But there’s no need to imagine that, really, they died – there’s never been any ‘really’ in this book, beyond the intensity of existence whose reality or otherwise blurs into irrelevance. The life Ruth leads with Sylvie, the one that somehow Robinson has made to seem fulfilled, is characterised by nothing so much as absence, departure, invisibility.
They have withdrawn so far they might as well be dead, and the most vivid passage in the final chapter is given to someone else. Ruth imagines – that’s all she could ever really do, imagine – that Lucille has found a new life in Boston. (This is when she hasn’t decided to be the sole owner-occupier of the old, or refurbished, or torn down and rebuilt house by the lake now that, as Ruth reminds us, ‘we are dead’. Everything is contingent, unsettled, open-ended by this point.) And what fills this imagined Lucille’s thoughts is absence – the same absence that, we realise, has defined Ruth’s existence since the death of their mother. Ruth has imagined the day of that brutal suicide with a different ending, just as she realises that Lucille must be doing the same somewhere. Mustn’t she? Ruth doesn’t know, and she isn’t living the kind of life that will ever let her find out.
Robinson, careful writer that she is, makes the final sentence as pregnant with meaning as the two sentences the novel opens with. ‘No-one watching this woman’ – so we’re now at yet another step removed from the Lucille who is only present in imagination in the first place – ‘could know how her thoughts are thronged by our absence’ – thoughts, we know, that are really Ruth’s own – ‘or how she does not… does not… does not… does not…’ – no comment – ‘and always for me and Sylvie.’ Imagined grief over an imagined bereavement, perpetually denied by the one doing the imagined grieving. Ruth has removed herself so far beyond being able to describe her own grief that she has to contort imagination and syntax. And we see right through it. This narrator hides herself away from herself, but Robinson has made it so that she isn’t fooling us. When she pushes the emotion furthest away from herself, we know it’s staying exactly where it’s always been.