There’s nothing like a serious bout of flu to help you knock through your reading list. After lying supine for five days and dragging my sorry carcass to the doctor (who said exactly what I knew he’d say: one needs to stop working 7 days a week), my brain finally switched on enough to read Cate Kennedy’s Like a House on Fire, plus a swag of other novels that I’ll review, hopefully before the month is out.
My first encounter with Kennedy was through her short story, ‘Cold Snap’, which won HQ Magazine’s short story competition in 2001. I read it again in Dark Roots and was struck by her stark rendition of rural poverty. I also thoroughly enjoyed her memoir, Sing and Don’t Cry, but was less enamoured of her novel The World Beneath, which felt baggy, the tension dispersed. I haven’t yet read her poetry, but clearly she exercises her skill across genres, for she’s been awarded for this as well.
Poverty, both material and emotional, is a frequent theme in her works, and appears in Like a House on Fire in stories such as ‘Five-Dollar Family’ about a mother who insists on having a family photograph with her newborn and his ineffectual father at a shopping mall near the hospital. The father’s purchase of a miniature motocross jacket for the baby becomes an indicator of how ill-suited the couple are: ‘He stands there with that idiot chimp smile on his face, and for a few seconds she thinks she might punch him square across the mouth. Her money, her baby allowance, already gone into their joint account. A hundred dollars easy, it must have cost, when she hasn’t even got a change table’ (109). However, the richness of her emotion prompted by the baby compensates for the father’s inadequacies.
The precarious connections between couples is also showcased in ‘Like a House on Fire’, which was probably my favourite. Here, the narrator and his wife Claire used to get on like the proverbial house on fire, until a back injury renders the former useless for months. As Claire takes up the role of breadwinning and parenting, their relationship fizzles, and the narrator can’t remember the last time his wife, who is a nurse, touched him ‘with hands that were anything except neutral and businesslike; hands turning me over, carefully but somehow not gently’ (80), until the final scene, when she returns from a shift on Christmas Eve and manipulates his back. In the closeness, ‘that small heat build[s] between us. Our breaths fuelling it, stick by careful stick over the ashes, oxygen and fuel, a controlled burn’ (92). Then the fire is alight again with the final line, ‘I reach up to pull the elastic band and grips out of her hair’ (93).
‘Whirlpool’ features the image of kids in an above-ground pool, running around its circular sides until it makes a whirlpool. I’d used to do this with my siblings and cousins when I was a kid, and was delighted to be reminded of it again. The surge of the water becomes a metaphor for a mother’s manipulative nature, her ‘wire-tight thoughts running ahead, grim with the need to plot exile and allegiance, the constant undertow shift of churned, compliant water’ (153).
It’s these undertows, the unspoken tensions and thoughts between people, that propel the stories. You read on to find out whether characters lash out, break away, make a connection, or simply sound out that which is unsaid. Sometimes the revelations are only made to the reader, rather than to another character. In ‘Static,’ the character Anthony, stressed by the tension of having his relatives to Christmas lunch and the growing distance of his wife with whom he’s trying to conceive a child, takes his nephew’s walkie-talkie into the garden. There, watching his wife through the kitchen window, he is suddenly destabilised by her careful preparations for lunch in a beautiful and saddening way:
He watches as Marie takes the sifter and starts dusting the pies with icing sugar and something dislodges in him with a delicate gush of pressure, something shifts to let bright sound in.
He watches her wrists flex, the air going out of him, certain, all of a sudden, that nothing of him will ever take root inside that thin, tightly wound body, nothing (236).
The intimacy that Kennedy creates with the reader is also realised in the final story, ‘Seventy-Two Derwents.’ Written as a girl’s diary to her teacher, the confessional tone draws the reader close, so that in just a few pages you care enough about Tyler to want to see her safe. Again, the theme between poverty and richness is referenced, but this time in relation to making and selling art. Tyler’s disappointment on being given cheap pencils, when she would like the more lush and expensive Derwents to draw well, leads her to ‘think sometimes about what you would have to do to be an artist, for example, how would you make money’ (263). This foreshadows the poignant delight which Tyler and her mother feel on unexpectedly making money from creating toys which are sold in a shop: ‘We sat there with sugar all round our mouth then Mum looked down at the envelope in her lap and tears dripped on it. She kept crying and shaking and wiping the tears and snot away then she took out thirty dollars and said Tyler, this is for you, this is your share’ (265). The sense of self-worth which art and money gives Tyler’s mother, a downtrodden woman, helps her to protect her daughter when the tension with her boyfriend, which builds throughout the story, culminates in a nasty and dramatic scene.
Kennedy’s versatility, already apparent from her journeying across genres, also manifests in this collection, with different voices — from first to second to third person — told from the points of view of children, new mothers and bitter mothers, gay men and unemployed men. She’s a deserving contender for the Stella Prize, which will be announced on Tuesday.
Book details: Kennedy, Cate. Like a House on Fire. Melbourne: Scribe, 2012.
Purchased from Avid Reader bookstore.
This is a review for the Australian Women Writers Challenge.