Thursday, June 26, 2014

Charming Home Fiction: Lippi's Homestead

Lippi, Rosina. Homestead. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1999 (1998).

Homestead is a collection of interconnected vignettes about a group of men and women who live in a tiny mountain village in  Austria. Each chapter describes a fleeting moment in the life of one woman (and her neighbors and family), beginning in the early 1900s and ending about sixty years later. The women thus described, then, are mothers and daughters, sisters, and aunts and cousins; once the author has introduced one woman, that woman will often reappear in later stories. There are ghosts, lovers, far-off husbands, and German soldiers. The men and women of the village are close-knit, often gossips, and deeply realistic: each has not just a story, but a particular frailty or weakness, making their relationships both complex and believable.

I enjoyed Homestead very much. It is a book to savor rather than one to read quickly; the vignettes, or chapters, span a vast period of time and leaving a day or two between some sections made the collection as a whole feel rich and expansive (although it is a really short book!). At the same time, I wouldn't recommend this for many younger readers; the style is pleasantly slow in a way that I did not appreciate in my early years, and the book presents premarital sex--in many instances--in a very sympathetic light. All of these women are presented sympathetically, as are their failures and weaknesses and desires, but many of these failures and weaknesses and desires seem to revolve around men, and the consequences are rarely severe. (Even the young woman who is punished for her actions receives an unexpected resolution). Intimacy is not explicit, but it is elegant.

A prevalent theme in Homestead is the idea of community, and, especially, the question of "who is my neighbour?" For the men and women in Lippi's isolated mountain community, neighbours are usually family, and privacy is surprisingly rare. Nowhere is this more evident than in the first chapter, when a postcard addressed to "Anna" is read to a wide collection of possible recipients, purportedly to determine the correct addressee. Like the postcard, family, words, stories, and intimacies are likewise shared among the members of the community; secrets are told and sometimes kept, but Lippi cleverly manages to reveal many of these to her readers over the course of the novel. Overall, this works well, and the stories are carefully plotted and interwoven. Homestead is a masterful collection, and one well worth a slow and languorous read.

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