PAUL VALERY likened prose to walking, poetry to dancing. Prose, he said, is always going somewhere, while poetry is the end in itself. This novel, Housekeeping , is very definitely going somewhere -- that is, has a plot and characters to carry it out. But author Marilynne Robinson uses the language so exquisitely, we would have to say that this book dances all the way.

And I do mean all the way. Every sentence is a wonderful sentence, made just right.

Often lyrical: "Their lives spun off the tilting world like thread off a spindle, breakfast time, suppertime, lilac time, apple time."

Sometimes comic: "Memory is the sense of loss, and loss pulls us after it. God Himself was pulled after us into the vortex we made when we fell, or so the story goes. And while He was on earth He mended families. He gave Lazarus back to his mother, and to the centurion he gave his daughter again. He even restored the severed ear of the soldier who came to arrest him -- a fact that allows us to hope the resurrection will reflect a considerable attention to detail.

And pervasively sad: "'It was cold today,' she would murmur, her face turned to the blue window, and her eyes as wide and mild as the eyes of a blind woman. Her hands would caress each other in a slow gesture of warming. Bones, bones, I thought, in a fine sheath of flesh like Sunday gloves. Her hands were long, and her throat long and her cheeks lank. I wondered if she could be warmed and nourished. If I were to take hold of those bone hands, could I squeeze warmth into them?"

The writing, then, gives Housekeeping a precise and perfect surface, a surface expected in poetry, but one which, in a noval, can be dangerous -- all too stylish, too smooth. Because of the sheer length of a novel, even a slender one like Housekeeping , it can cloy. Or turn in upon itself, become precious, vain, mere surface.

Not so here. Housekeeping , has plenty of other things going for it. Its plot, for instance, is strong enough for melodrama tracing the fate of two orphaned girls, raising questions about those who have surrounded them: their mother, dead by suicide, their guardian Sylvie, gone hollow, gone mad. The questions aren't meant to be answered, they are meant to swirl as they might in Fingerbone Lake, where the book is set -- carried by the many undercurrents, rising now to the surface and then falling away again, out of reach.

Ruth, the older of the two girls, tells their story. She gives us what she knows and feels and wonders, but in the book's terms. And we measure what she says in the world's terms. We get a kind of double vision because we always know more than Ruth. We interpret the life she lives. We know she is a little girl of the sort we were warned away from while growing up, porly fed and poorly dressed, raised by a crazy aunt in a dirty house. Ruth's sister's defection to the clean and cozy is, in the book's terms, a wrenching act of betrayal. In the world's terms -- say, if we were to read this plot in the form of a news story -- it is laudable and sane. We would sign with relief. So Housekeeping gathers strength and depth and substance not just through its language and plot, but also through its point of view, which forces us to change sides, exchange our judgments for Ruth's. It's a tricky point of view to sustain, too, what with Ruth's odd mix of severe limitation (you might call it innocence) and acute perception.

That very perception brings us full circle to what we'd earlier called surface. We realize that every perfect word, every precise arrangement of words, is refracted through Ruth. Housekeeping , all of a sudden, seems not so much crafted as inspired, but maybe that is, after all, the true test of craft.

In any case, Housekeeping proves that fine fiction is still being written and set in type, bound, and urged upon booksellers. And Marilynne Robinson has no assured following because Housekeeping is her first novel. It was clearly a risky book to write and a risky book to produce.

This gives those of us who've been tsk-tsking about the all-too-commercial way of the publishing world a chance to atone by going to the bookstore and ordering this extraordinary work.