Lisa Gorton, The Life of Houses (Giramondo 2015)
Lisa Gorton is a an award-winning poet. I’m using that journalist’s phrase because I haven’t read enough of her poetry to have any real sense of it. I have read some of her criticism and been intensely grateful for the insights she shares. Her first novel, Cloudland, was for young readers. The Life of Houses is her first novel for a general readership.
The action of the novel unfolds over about a week. Anna manages a Melbourne art gallery. While her husband is visiting his family in England, she sends their teenaged daughter Kit to stay with her estranged parents in a tiny seaside town a couple of hours’ train journey away. Anna has to prepare for an exhibition opening during school holidays, but her real reason for packing Kit off is so she can spend time with a lover, who is pressing her to leave her husband.
While Anna wrestles with her ambivalence about her love life, Kit encounters the miasma of unresolved emotion in her mother’s childhood home – her grandparents’ not-really-unspoken resentment of their daughter who left them with barely a backward glance, and the small-mindedness of small-town life beyond the family.
Not a lot happens. A teenage boy has died, probably by suicide, probably because he was gay, and Scott, an artist who was Anna’s childhood friend, falls under suspicion because he had spent time with the boy. There’s something needy and a bit creepy about Scott, but I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say we never learn anything about his sexuality, and that the suspicion is purely a symptom of small town thinking. He befriends Kit, and is the only person who has an inkling of what she is experiencing.
There’s another death, but external events are much less important in this novel than internal processes. Kit begins to think of her mother differently, and her sense of herself has grown. Anna’s attitude to her family softens, and her ambivalence about the lover deepens. Scott almost decides to leave the town. Everyone has a take on the building that is the family home: its history, its ghosts, who will inherit it, its emotional meanings and (in passing, but ominously) its market value. Absolutely nothing is neatly resolved.
Lisa Gorton and the editorial team at Giramondo aren’t afraid of hard-working adjectives or busy punctuation. For example:
The whole scene lay open before her: heat shimmering off scrub out where the road was, mile after mile of flat, low, secretive country. She found a sort of elation in it: a loneliness answering her mood. Sharp, scattering sounds drew her eyes to where the bird was lifting wing-beat by wing-beat up from the surface of the lake, its legs trailing in the water. She watched holding her breath; it seemed so unlikely the bird would rise.
That’s two colons and a semicolon in four sentences. More than once, a single sentence matches that. Here’s one from when Kit is listening in on a conversation between her aunt and Scott soon after she arrives in the town:
Their way of ignoring so much made Kit notice more: the creaking sound of some loose join in the decking; and that lasting roar: it was the wind, not the sea, she could hear.
The frequent use of sentence structures that call for this kind of punctuation has the effect of blocking the flow of the narrative. What is happening is almost always less important than the process of observing it. And often it feels as if things are there because they have been observed, even though they add nothing to the narrative or our understanding of character. Anyone reading to find out what happens next may be disappointed. The pleasures of this book lie elsewhere.
I received my review copy of the book from Giramondo.
The Life of Houses is the tenth book I’ve read for the 2015 Australian Women Writers Challenge. I’ve now finished the challenge – but I don’t expect I’ll stop reading relevant books.
Lisa Gorton recently gave a fascinating interview about The Life of Houses to Fiona Gruber on the ABC’s Books and Arts.