Walker Percy has described this strange 1980 publication of Robinson’s first novel as a “haunting dream of a story.” The characters are strange; the plot is strange; and the ending is strange, open to more than one interpretation. Even the characters are strange enough to wonder if they are sane or not. Ruth, the older of two sisters has never fit in, nor never wanted to. Her younger sister, Lucille is just the opposite, desiring to be popular and to lead a “normal” life. Eventually, the sisters come under the care of their mother’s sister, Sylvia Fisher, the strangest of characters I’ve ever read. She is described as “eccentric” and “remote,” a definite understatement.
Underlying the story is the river and the railroad that crossed the river once, sending a whole train and all its passengers into the glacial waters so deep no one ever found the train or any traces of it. The girls’ grandfather was killed in the accident. There are no chapters in this book, to speak of ; one section just flows into another, pulling the reader along as the river pulls along the things and people who fall into it. Thematically, the novel deals with the transience and impermanence of things and of life, The Great Depression, insanity, death, and suicide. In places it is depressing, but, throughout, it is beautifully written. There are even some spots of dark humor.
Years ago I had read and loved Gilead, Home, and Lila, Robinson’s outstanding trilogy, and came to her debut novel late, expecting something that was not present. The novel left me impressed with the writing, intrigued and a bit puzzled by the ending. I could not rate this novel if I wanted to and kept the copy I ordered rather than passing it along because I am sure I will, at some point, read it again.