Where the walls can speak in cast-off voices
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