Picador, 2004 (1981)
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Reviewed by Marie Hashima Lofton
is a modern classic. It's the beautifully written story of two sisters (Ruth and Lucille) who are raised successively by various members of their family. Ruth - the elder sister who often seems to take on the role of a younger sibling - narrates. They do not know who their father is, but are initially in the care of a free-spirited mother who often suffers severe bouts of depression. After her early death, she is replaced by their maternal grandmother, Sylvia Foster, the closest thing to a mother they have in their lives. For a brief time, two elderly sisters-in-law replace Sylvia, and then finally, the two girls are in the hands of their mother's sister, Sylvie, a woman who clearly does not enjoy the idea of setting roots.
he novel is prefaced with an account of the family background, in which their grandfather's tragic death is explained. Death and darkness seem to surround this family, and Ruth and Lucille inherit the stories that are passed down from one generation to the next. Fingerbone Lake is the center of their world, the place where their grandfather and mother both lost their lives, and the novel keeps drawing the reader and the characters back to that cold foreboding body of water. While the lake and the geography of their hometown is probably the most important focus in the novel, the story revolves around these two girls, who are orphaned at such a young age and start out life as close as two sisters can be.
ut as they approach puberty, one of them realizes how dysfunctional is the life they are living with their Aunt Sylvie, who seems to behave very much like a transient hobo. The more I read this latter half of the book, the angrier I became with Sylvie. A question of what is considered
becomes the focal point, as Sylvie's unorthodox ways are brought to the neighborhood's attentions. It is now a question of whether the children should be taken away from her, or will the community ignore what is going on? Sylvie divides the two sisters - one being very upset with the household situation, while the other appears to be falling into the same patterns as her aunt.
his is a difficult and complex book. It is hard to sympathize or empathize with characters who often portray negative aspects of humanity. Ruth's narration sets the mood of a child struggling to understand her life and what to make of it, but seemingly failing. However, the book as a whole - and taking into consideration the beautiful descriptions of landscape that help shape the mood - is remarkable. Marilynne Robinson's debut novel will be read for years to come, talked about and dissected.
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