Housekeeping is traditionally and stereotypically the preserve of women, and it is women who dominate this wonderful, award-winning novel. (All men are dead or otherwise absent).
The Foster family is one beset by tragedy and isolation, both that which is thrust upon them and that of their own making. Generations of them have lived in the evocatively named lakeside town of Fingerbone, whose lake informs their identity and shapes their lives. Their story is told by Ruth, beginning with the accidental death by drowning of her grandfather, which occurred some years before she was born. This leaves her grandmother to bring up her three teenage daughters on her own. Eventually, all three grow up and fly the nest, leaving Mrs Foster alone with her housekeeping rituals and her thoughts. Helen, the middle daughter, marries, moves to Seattle and has two daughters of her own - Ruth and Lucille.
When Ruth is five, Helen takes her and Lucille back to Fingerbone and, having left them in their grandmother's care, drives her car off a cliff and into the same lake which took her father. For the next few years Ruth & Lucille are brought up by their grandmother. On her death, their paternal great-aunts take over the job for a while, but, feeling inadequate and uncomfortable, they send off for the girls' Aunt Sylvie, who eventually agrees to stay on and look after them.
Sylvie is eccentric, to say the least. She ignores (or, at least, is not bothered by) Ruth and Lucille's truancy, neglects conventional housework while performing other, unnecessary tasks in the name of housekeeping, has odd habits and dresses the girls inappropriately. As Lucille gets older, she gets increasingly fed up with such behaviour and eventually just moves in with a schoolteacher. Ruth is left alone with Sylvie whose influence on her gradually increases in intensity until the novel reaches its dramatic denouement.
Robinson's prose is deceptively simple: Many of her similes (as John Mullen has pointed out elsewhere on the web), for example, are new coinages and yet have the well-worn feel of those which have been in use for hundreds of years. 'As warped as water' is just one such instance. Her imagery generally is atypical: water, for example, is portrayed as an almost malevolent force, rather than something which cleanses or purifies. Written in an exquisite poetic style, the novel reads beautifully. Moreover, her exploration of grief and the damage which occurs when that is overly internalised is expertly done. The questions the novel raises about the nature of isolation and the way in which an 'abnormal' family may interact with the rest of the community are also intriguing. In short, this is an absorbing, thought-provoking novel, full of arresting images which will remain with me for some time to come. Well worth a read.