ANNA SPARGO-RYAN The Paper House. Reviewed by Kylie Mason
An unimaginable loss leads to unimaginable suffering in this debut novel.
Heather and Dave have bought a house on a hill by the sea; a house with unusual rooms, a rambling back yard and a bull-nosed verandah. They are expecting their first child and have sold their city flat, too small for a family of three, happily making plans for the life they will have with their baby in their perfectly imperfect home. But as Heather’s pregnancy progresses there comes a day when she and Dave notice the baby has been quieter than usual. A trip to the hospital just to be safe brings them the most unthinkable news. And afterwards, Heather and Dave arrive at the house on the hill a family of only two:
The car stopped at a place I didn’t know, on a road I didn’t recognise. Just a house, flickering in and out of the afternoon sun. Dave plucked me from the car and pulled me into his shoulder; he smelled of paint and tape and dust. We walked through the front door the way I must have imagined we would, into the neat entryway that led through to the kitchen, his arm around me but empty, so empty, just skin on his skeleton, and I wanted to sleep for the rest of my life but I didn’t know where the bedroom was.
Devastated and bereft, Heather takes to her bed to recover from the traumatic birth. Dave does what he can, but he must eventually return to his job as a teacher, and so Heather is left alone in the house where she had hoped to raise their child. After a while, her sister Fleur arrives to keep Heather company for a short time to take some of the pressure off Dave. But despite the support and help of Dave and Fleur – and Sylvia the neighbour and Jenny the counsellor – Heather continues to slide deeper into herself
The publisher’s blurb calls The Paper House ‘the story of a woman sinking into the depths of grief, and the desperate efforts of her loved ones to bring her up for air’. This is only partly accurate, because it becomes clear that The Paper House is a novel about mental illness more than it is a novel about grief: grief in itself is not a mental illness, but it is Heather’s grief at the loss of her baby that triggers her descent into an unnamed state. This is an important distinction to make because from the blurb readers might expect a very different book from the almost dreamlike journey into mental illness this novel actually is:
The ground was thick as tar but I walked in it anyway, looking for the places where I knew I would find the woman with the golden hair and shrill laughter; where she had painted herself into grabs and snippets that she must have known I would take with me everywhere. Slips of paper with her face painted on them, faces like impatiens and irises and daisies, crumpled together in my pockets but as heavy as stars.
The house hid behind its familiar cloak of fog. I pulled my body through it and the mouse trailed behind me, searching in the low visibility with its satellite ears. ‘I don’t have any food for you,’ I said to the mouse, clawing and pawing at the curtains. ‘I’m just trying to get home.’
Being exclusively in Heather’s point of view is confronting: she is compelling and vulnerable, if not entirely reliable or likeable. Conversations with her relatives and neighbours reveal that how Heather sees and thinks of things might not be how they actually are. Only Noel, the man who lives in Heather and Dave’s garden, seems able to understand Heather and what she’s going through; if only the others could speak to Noel, they’d understand too. But at the same time, Heather is confused by Noel – nothing he says makes much sense, yet she finds talking to him soothing. The short interludes narrated by a young Heather showing a mother who lived with mental illness give an idea of what Heather has experienced, what has influenced her and why she might be becoming ill after her most recent traumatic experience. These interludes are deftly written, and lighthearted in the way only child narrators can be: adult readers will instantly see the undercurrents in Heather’s mother, Shelley’s, story and connect them with how adult Heather is behaving in the present:
We’ve just got home from Westfield. Mummy took us to see Aladdin. She bought us popcorn in buckets the size of our heads, and choc tops, and then when we had finished the choc tops she went and bought more choc tops. I didn’t really want one by then, because my tummy was starting to hurt a bit, but she had a look like I really should take it, so I did.
Now we’re sitting in bed together, us three girls, with our jammies on. Mummy’s in the middle and she’s got her arms around both of us but Fleur is trying to sneak out so she can watch TV. I’ve got my head in Mummy’s lap and she’s stroking my hair, which is what she calls it, but actually she’s picking the dead skin off my skull and looking at it.
However, some elements of the story seem underdeveloped: Heather’s relationships with her sister and father outside of how they treat her during her illness feel ill-defined, as does her grief at the loss of her baby – the tragedy too quickly subsumed by Heather’s numbness to the world around her. This may be intentional, a device to concentrate the reader’s attention on Heather and what she’s going through, but it makes for a slightly unsatisfying read. Still, there is much to admire about the novel – it is brave and assured writing, with fascinating characters in a delicate situation, and it is filled with gorgeous images and language, and examines heartbreaking experiences many readers will connect with. The Paper House is an intriguing taste of what Anna Spargo-Ryan is capable of and where her writing might go.
Anna Spargo-Ryan The Paper House Picador 304pp $32.99
Kylie Mason is a freelance book editor based in Sydney.
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