This week, my knack for picking audio books with lush language and heart-breaking story lines showed itself in full force. I started out with Anne Enright’s The Gathering. The writing steals my thought with its luxury and its simplicity. The story is basic – a brother dies. The sister must tell her mother and family. The mother is mentally ill and has been for some time. But beneath it all, there is a secret about the brother – the piece of the story that keeps it moving forward.
I haven’t finished the book yet, because the narrator’s voice, her story, her way of seeing the world feels so real and yet is so heart-rending that I can only absorb it in small pieces. I will finish though – how could I pass on the chance to savor such morsels of language?
The second book was Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping. Again, the language broke me open, left me cracked and new and raw. The story here again is simple. Two sisters are left with their extended family after their mother commits suicide. The girls eventually come to be cared for by their aunt, a woman who has only been what we would now call a transient, someone who lives on the street and moves from place to place. The plot unfolds as one sister comes to connect with the aunt and the other takes a different path.
There’s something about the way Robinson tells a story – without plot flourish or big action – that speaks of the way life actually is – normal even in its strangeness. The way she captures one of the sisters, Ruthie, in this book put into words a little bit of my teenage self that I was never able to spin out on my own.
Both books grieved me in their simplicity and in the way the writers use language to describe the most everyday of things as if they were the vistas of jungle waterfalls I had never seen before. Yet, I expect when I get to the end of the Enright, I will feel sad, heartbroken a bit – but maybe I am wrong. When I finished Robinson’s work, as sad as it might be if the plot was separated from the characters, I found it uplifting in the way that lives lived in truth to themselves are – right, solid, even if it seems impossible for us to take them on.
In the end, both of these books have shown me that writing about “the other” doesn’t have to be extreme, and it doesn’t have to be entirely “other” either. In each of us is each of us, I see.
Have you read The Gathering or Housekeeping? What did you think of them?