Where the walls can speak in cast-off voices

The Weekend Australian - Review - - BOOKS - Felic­ity Plun­kett

The Life of Houses By Lisa Gor­ton Gi­ra­mondo, 224pp, $26.95 For Emily Dickinson, beloved books are “kins­men of the shelf”. This im­age of com­pact affin­ity sug­gests em­pa­thy and en­clo­sure, of books en­ter­ing the in­ti­mate spa­ces of our lives like kin­dred spir­its. It is the kind of viv­i­fy­ing close­ness Mar­cel Proust evokes in his sug­ges­tion: “There are per­haps no days of our child­hood we lived so fully as those we spent with a favourite book.”

Lisa Gor­ton, award-win­ning au­thor of the po­etry col­lec­tions Press Re­lease (2007) and Ho­tel Hype­r­ion (2013) and the 2008 chil­dren’s novel Cloud­land, is a writer of ex­quis­ite sen­si­tiv­ity to the im­prints of mem­ory and emo­tion on ob­jects and places. The Life of Houses is a novel about th­ese ideas, and one with the vi­tal­ity and power to be­come shelf-kin, its vi­sion lin­ger­ing, sharp and edgy.

The first poem in Press Re­lease de­scribes houses that “turn their backs on streets’’ be­cause “who wouldn’t bunker down be­hind a

May 2-3, 2015 stack of si­lence?”. The dark smaller than you ex­pected”.

The Life of Houses cen­tres on the sim­i­larly reclu­sive house in which Anna, the pro­tag­o­nist, grew up, and where “cast-off voices” persist. She is at a piv­otal mo­ment in her life, ten­ta­tively in­volved in an af­fair with the nervily scrupu­lous Peter and sep­a­rated from the fa­ther of her daugh­ter Kit.

Not yet hav­ing shared habits, she and Peter “sanc­ti­fied familiar places” — ho­tel rooms and the dark cor­ners of restau­rants. Her an­gle of vi­sion is oblique: she is of­ten out­side, look­ing in, or watch­ing her­self and oth­ers in mir­rors. Wait­ing for Peter to ar­rive, she sees her­self in a restau­rant mir­ror: “Strange: it would be that per­son he saw.” This sense of watch­ing-frombe­yond sharp­ens her per­spec­tive on her his­tory and fu­ture, as well as on peo­ple around her.

She no­tices a young woman in a restau­rant with “her hair done spe­cially, though with her pro­file that chignon had been a mis­take”. An­other, she thinks, has taken “Coco Chanel’s ad­vice — ‘Take off one thing be­fore you leave the house’ — and had taken off her skirt”. Anna’s com­men­tary redi­rects bile out­wards, its “vast contempt” an ef­fort to ex­or­cise per­ceived hu­mil­i­a­tions. This jagged sav­agery cuts through the re­straint that sits at the novel’s sur­face to



“is dis­close the pulse of its darker en­er­gies. At first the chap­ters com­part­men­talise Anna’s life, just as her ar­range­ments do, though each seg­ment will later leak and col­lapse. She steps out of her own life into “a noon­day glare of feel­ing” with Peter, be­calmed and un­cer­tain, as they have “come to ex­ist for each other out­side their so­cial lives”. This re­calls Gor­ton’s poem The Af­fair, in which the speaker and her lover work on “try­ing to feel ab­so­lute about each other”.

Gor­ton cap­tures the des­o­la­tion built from Peter’s fas­tid­i­ous­ness and Anna’s doubt. At one stage, she reaches for him to find “he had stepped al­ready into that blank of time be­tween their meet­ings”. Nei­ther seems to know how to cre­ate and sus­tain con­nec­tion; each seems adrift.

Anna sends Kit to stay with her par­ents and sis­ter in her child­hood home. Anna is es­tranged from her fam­ily, and Kit’s only mem­ory of the house is its night as­pect: “a sense of ter­ror: the house grown vast, dark halls open­ing end­lessly out”. Now, be­yond the house, she hears the sea: “a low, con­fid­ing sound that seemed to come from all di­rec­tions”. Her aunt, with a “dig­ni­fied un­notic­ing mild­ness”, at­tends to her scorn­ful and re­mote mother and her fa­ther, who re­minds Kit of a hand-drawn il­lus­tra­tion in Vogue, “dec­o­ra­tive cal­lig­ra­phy and wa­ter­colour, con­sciously ob­so­lete”.

Be­neath this chilly for­mal­ity, each grand­par­ent is mired in toxic cer­tainty. Pa­trick’s is an “im­pas­sive po­lite­ness”, a “with­drawn and de­lib­er­ate cour­tesy” un­der which lurks some­thing more sin­is­ter. He de­scribes the ghost, Alice, who haunts the house. With a “washed-out smile” and a laugh like a blow, he sees Kit’s fear at the “gath­ered an­tag­o­nism, an in­ten­sity of air” that may be

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