Alexandra McLeavy reviews The Life of Houses by Lisa Gorton
by Lisa Gorton
Reviewed by ALEXANDRA MCLEAVY
The Life of Houses opens with one of the central characters, Anna, awaiting her lover’s arrival in a hotel dining room. The setting is ornate, the hour early and the space as yet unpopulated. “It had become the part of her evenings with him she enjoyed most simply,” the novel muses: “this solitude in which she felt closest to the simple existence of knives and forks and spoons” (p. 3). Immediately the domestic materials of daily life are elevated from the modesty of mere function to signifiers of deeper importance. From the knives and forks and spoons of this scene to furniture, houses and family heirlooms, objects and spaces in The Life of Houses far outweigh the matter of their substance and play a descriptive role in vivifying or devitalising the narrative landscape. More often than not their connotations are dark, with objects implying the burdens of the past and spaces rendered by their shadows and deficiencies. Though Anna awaits Peter, her lover, taking a certain pleasure in the anonymous surroundings that are “a world away from her own taste” (p. 3) it’s hardly an optimistic image: her happiness is predicated on the absence of intimacy and human connection.
Award-winning poet Lisa Gorton uses the material world to great lyrical effect in The Life of Houses, her first novel for adults. Inward-looking and psychologically specular, the book initially vacillates between Anna and her teenaged daughter Kit’s points of view. While Anna stays behind in Melbourne to weigh-up her romantic future Kit is sent to visit her grandparents and aunt in the “Sea House”, the family home in which Anna grew up and resolutely left behind. Once-grand and now rapidly decaying, “Sea House” is an antiquated memorial to the past in which her grandparents live an insular life in genteel poverty. It’s only Kit’s second time visiting yet the morning following her arrival her grandmother tells her she’ll inherit the place, an announcement that stirs little in Kit but awkward self-consciousness.
The novel eventually settles with Kit and follows her meanderings around the shadowy, dank old house and equally claustrophobic, if quaint, seaside town. This works because although Anna’s narrative offers the sharpest and most acerbic insights in the text it’s Kit who pads the halls of the house at the heart of the novel in real time. Moreover, she is the most rounded and realised of the two characters: unlike her dry and rather brittle mother, Kit is considerably more sympathetic, emotionally approachable and engaging. Readers who want to “fall in love” with characters take note: this book is unlikely to inspire great passion for any member of its cast. The Life of Houses is populated by guarded characters tainted by failure and disappointment: Scott, Anna’s childhood friend, is a talented artist reduced to running life-drawing classes in the local hall; Treen, Kit’s aunt, returned to the family home nursing a broken heart and never moved on; Kit’s grandparents, Audrey and Patrick, are overtly contemptuous of the outside world and have no desire to be part of it. Their bitterness and discontent bleeds into all relationships and an acute sense of alienation and estrangement characterises human connections in the novel, from the familial and romantic to encounters between acquaintances and strangers. Despite being a character-driven novel The Life of Houses is unrelentingly mired in the complexity and complications of human connection: all in all it’s a bleak reflection of social being which emphasises the breaches and divisions between individuals. Personally, I found this strain eventually detracted from Gorton’s rich, lustrous prose – there was a monotony about it that left me craving some glimmer of humour or hope in the darkness.
Like its characters, the narrative continually retreats inwards to the architectural security of containment and domesticity. In the opening scene mentioned Anna experiences relative happiness in the baroque dining room as she waits, alone, for Peter to arrive. But the benign comfort of her material consolation represents a potential trap for in The Life of Houses spaces inscribed by habit, routine and familiarity tend to exert a tyrannous hold on the people and families who inhabit or frequent them. There is a burdensome weight in trodden hallways, shadowy corners and the shared past; it is as if a house or a room could manifest the bitterness and discontent of those who occupy it. At one point, musing on the family home into which she’s invited her lover, Anna concedes to herself that “all that she had come to think of as belonging to the house itself she had to acknowledge lived in her only” (p. 46).
The “Sea House” epitomises this trope of oppressive interiority. In an illustrative recollection Anna, struggling to explain the family home to Peter, remembers that she and Treen “were always walking out of wide sunlight into the permanent indoorness of the house” (p. 11) as girls. In the present time the reader arrives with Kit in the dead of night: the dimly lit, depressingly fluorescent kitchen leaves a very glum first impression. Inducted by her grandfather’s historical ramblings and overwhelmed by the damp, dilapidated, labyrinthine confines of the decrepit residence, Kit longs to be outside again. The house is funereal and static and its aged, worse for wear furnishings are set on display as if in a permanent and private exhibition. Her grandparents are bound by their immovable obsession with preserving the past and self-righteously wield the narratives and artefacts of history as a kind of power. As Anna tells Peter of her parent’s inheritance “(i)t isn’t property for them; it’s history, so long as you take history to be a sort of borrowed self-importance” (p. 12). Fearful of such a burden and resistant to her family’s legacy Anna imagines bulldozers tearing down the house in a fantasy of defiance and then reflexively wonders: “(t)his house, could it be destroyed?” (p.184). Her doubt emphasises the gravity of the house, its shadow looming larger than the bricks-and-mortar fact of its existence.
The Life of Houses is heady with sensory detail and precise, exacting descriptions. Gorton’s style is evocative and fluid and carries the reader along with haunting momentum. Rather than slowing the narrative down with poetic density her keenly observational eye guides us through interior worlds both psychological and architectural. The acute prose shapes spaces according to the predisposition of the subject experiencing it so that the shadows and illuminations distinct to the characters’ impressions render each scene a kind of portrait that allows us access to the characters’ psyche. Yet the proximity of Gorton’s close focus accentuates their isolation and dwells on the shortcomings and failures of close relationships. It’s testament to her skill as a writer that the reader is left with a lingering sense of desolation and detachment upon closing the book but this coldness may leave readers like myself, who desire a connectedness in fiction, wanting.