Review: Felicity Castagnaon Melina Marchetta

È una casa per la mia famiglia: A house for my family

I’m trying to work out what it is about a Melina Marchetta novel that sucks you in and I think it has something to do with the fact that we are all so lonely these days. The communities in Marchetta’s novels can be fraught and complex but they are also places where everyone knows each others’ names. Even with all the ‘spies’ that follow Josie around in Looking for Alibrandi, curtailing her teenage rebellion, or the barrier that a mother’s mental illness places between her and her family in Saving Francesca, or the explosive conflicts between old friends in The Piper’s Son, Marchetta’s books all take place in a world where, at least eventually, people feel connected enough that they are willing to reach out to try to understand one another, and to begin to belong together. There is no more fundamental human need greater than our need to belong and when we enter into a Marchetta novel we know that that need will be satisfied by being thrust into a world, where, at least eventually, everyone finds their tribe.

We belong to our families, our friends, our communities, our homes – roughly in this order – in a Marchetta novel. But these categories blur as communities spawn unlikely friendships and houses become symbolic representations of family dynamics. Take for example Marchetta’s latest book, The Place on Dalhousie. Here we return to the communities of Haberfield and Leichhardt in the inner west of Sydney where most of her novels are set, an area which is defined by the influence of an older, mostly Southern Italian, community. Alongside them live a younger generation who find themselves both defined by and in opposition to these elders, and more recently in complex relationships with the other cultural groups and gentrifiers moving into the area.

This novel takes a tighter focus on place than her previous novels though, and most of the action centres around a house on Dalhousie Street and what it means to the lives of three protagonists who tell their stories in alternating third-person chapters: Rosie, Jimmy and Martha.

The house was a dump when Rosie’s parents Seb and Loredana bought it in the 1980s after quitting the poverty and crime of Palermo for a better life. Rosie is born there and as she grows up all of her family’s dreams are poured into this home. Her parents fight council to build extensions. Locals think they’re crazy for living there at all. But before the house is finished Loredana passes away – and Seb marries Martha not too long after.

Rosie, who is 16, is so distressed by this turn of events that she takes off to live with her grandmother Eugenia in Sicily for a year. Shortly after she returns tragedy strikes again when her father is killed in a hit and run. This time Rosie heads off to northern New South Wales. It is here where we meet her, caught in a town that has been ravaged by flood, caught in the arms of an SES worker named Jimmy who is there to find his own missing parents.

The novel skips a year ahead. Rosie has returned to the house on Dalhousie street with Toto, the baby Jimmy didn’t know about until he found an old bag with a phone in it with messages from Rosie. This is where the action really begins, when Rosie stakes her claim on the house that Seb built, for his family (which doesn’t include Martha according to Rosie), and Jimmy first meets his son.

Let’s get something straight before we continue. There is no house on Dalhousie Street, there is only a home and the distinction is important. A house is not the same as a home. Home is an idea, a story we tell ourselves about who we are and what we want to become. There is no place like home because home is not actually a place. And I don’t need to go quoting Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space, the text that made this semantic distinction famous. This is because we all know this to be true: a house is bricks and mortar; a house doesn’t necessarily capture the soul of a home. The soul of this home in Haberfield lies in Rosie’s memories of her father building and in the smells of her mother’s cooking. For Martha, it’s in looking at the bed she shared with Seb and finishing the grouting that never got done and in imagining that one day she’ll fix up the yard and sit in the banana chairs, with the solar lights that Seb wanted to put there when the house was finished. When Rosie returns she holes herself and Toto up in the upstairs extension and Martha confines herself to the kitchen. The two of them try to navigate a physical space that is cluttered with emotions and invisible furniture on which the characters continually bruise their shins.

There is much delayed pleasure and pain here: a kettle whistle or a porch light can transport the characters into another time and space; anger is what cuts through the silence between Martha and Rosie. The house is ‘the only place that makes sense to Rosie’ but she doesn’t know how to be in it anymore and her anger distorts the way she views it, literally in this argument with Martha:

‘And what right do you have taking down the photos of my mother in the living room?’

‘Once again, no disrespect to Loredana, but why would I have photos of her in a house that I’ve been the sole occupant of for almost three years?’

‘Because it’s my house.’

Rosie is left with tunnel vision: ‘All Rosie can see in the kitchen now is a photo of Martha and her father stuck to the fridge.’

For both characters the home is a projection of who they are and who they want to be but they can’t factor each other into this picture. The home makes them delirious with longing; it says, you want me, you want me – but they don’t know how to possess it together.

Enter Jimmy – who comes to the house, where neither of these women pay much attention to him, in order to try to be the father he never had himself. Jimmy is the only person in this text who is essentially homeless. He grew up in housing commission in Waterloo with an addict father and a mother who left. Both of his parents are now living separately somewhere around Northern NSW. We gets snippets of Jimmy’s reconciliation with them throughout the book: his mother has a new family who don’t know anything about Jimmy and his father still drinks too much. Jimmy has now taken up a career as a fly-in fly-out worker near Brisbane and commutes between the mines, Rosie’s house and the houses of his high school friends in Sydney.

Jimmy has a far different conception of home to Rosie. It’s one that I would argue is far more of our time. He understands that home is an ephemeral thing, that it is a lifesaver when you stumble upon it, but that, like joy, it can’t be chased. When he reunites after a period of absence with his high school friends, Tara, Makee and Frankie (relationships that dedicated readers would know from Marchetta’s previous novels), he describes the meeting like this:

He’s home, and he knows he’s home because they’re here and that’s the way it is, just the certainty that one of them will always be around.

When he’s not with them he takes the role that Seb would have had in the house on Dalhousie Street, repairing things and attempting to negotiate a truce between Rosie and Martha.

I have to say I love Jimmy much more than the other characters in this book because he represents, to me, that we live in a world where home, particularly for younger people, is a really complex beast. The dwellings in which we are raised, the communities we are born into do not necessarily constitute home as easily as they do for the older characters in a Marchetta novel. Home ownership is the lowest it has ever been in Australia and many cannot afford to live in the communities where they grew up. Young people must move much more frequently than their parents because of the instability of being renters and the increasing cost of rent. And then there are people like me, living on the edge of suburbs that have become cities: it’s highly unlikely that my home, my street, that corner shop I get my milk at will even exist by the time my kids are my age. Everything that marks the home of their youth, down to the local school, which is marked to be demolished, will probably be gone. Everything will be eaten by the light rail and the newly developed apartment blocks and my kids will be living in some outer, outer western suburb that does not even exist yet. And this argument doesn’t even take into account the amount of displaced people, people who are born in other countries, people like Jimmy who have never really had a fixed address.

In The Encyclopedia of Trouble and Spaciousness Rebecca Solnit argues that perhaps the point of a home is as ‘a machine to slow down time, a barrier against history, a hope that nothing will happen, though something always does.’ Marchetta draws our attention to those aspects of community that don’t change and there is so much comfort in that for both the characters and the reader. There are no references in The Place on Dalhousie to contemporary gamechangers like WestConnex or to the number of apartments under construction in the inner-west of Sydney. Marchetta concentrates on the neighbours who have been there for generations. When walking down her street Martha takes comfort from aspects of the landscape and architecture that don’t change:

Even at the worst of times the street is a comfort to her. Brush box trees and decorative parapets and timber fences and striped bull-nose roofs with wide verandahs.

It is in that slowing down of time that the complicated layers of home, community, family, and the ever-present ghost of migration exist in the text. We learn there is a reason why Rosie spends such an inordinate amount of time navigating the neighbourhood like a more ethnic female version of Baudelaire’s flâneur. It’s not because, as Jimmy seems to think, that she hasn’t updated to a time where normal people drive the car to Coles to do their shopping. It is because it brings her closer to the connections of family, community and particularly to the migrant communities that mark this place as home:

Some people know where to get the best pane di casa and arancini. Rosie knows where to find women that speak the dialect. She can’t go overboard because she’s on a budget, so it’s one hundred grams of prosciutto from Lamonica IGA, a tub of fresh ricotta at Paesanella, a small container of giardiniera from Zanetti’s. There are the terms of endearment she waits to hear. Bella. Gioia. Tesoro. Words that cocooned Rosie’s childhood.

‘The different cultures thing,’ as Josie called it in Looking For Alibrandi, has become far more complex and nuanced in The Place on Dalhousie. This novel is still full of driving Nonna to bingo parties and sugo cooking in the kitchen but there is far less overt discussion of the problems of navigating hybridity. There is no pressure to conform to any cultural expectations, in part because Rosie has lost much of that connection to her migrant community through the death of her parents. She is ‘the last Gennaro of her family and the second last on her mother’s side. When Rosie and Nonna Eugenia die, there’ll be none of them left. So much for big Italian families.’ Migration and the home country are never romanticised in this book.

Seb would say with great bitterness that there was no future tense in the Sicilian language, and little wonder…Seb was a version of Martha’s own father, who never looked back. One changed the spelling of his name; the other bought into the dream of owning something in his life despite it being a hovel.

Maybe this is the whole point of a Marchetta novel: that the home for those migrant figures who populate her books are a port in a long voyage toward that eventual, permanent place that you make your own. For those like Rosie’s parents who have migrated from their homeland, without the built-in social structure of a community or a family unit, this rupture of belonging can be particularly disorienting and lonesome-making. The Place on Dalhousie suggests that perhaps friends, neighbours, the familiar things in one’s community might constitute a new nation and that within the scope of a handful of connected lives there might be contained all the progress and setback and hope for a new world.

It’s the home itself that throws Marchetta’s characters back into position. Coming home is not just about seeing the familiar or searching for something comfortable: it is also about negotiating the gap between their idea of themselves and what the place means in their personal story. Rosie runs away from home multiple times in an attempt to assert her own independence and authority, but mostly she just proves she’s an immature brat who doesn’t really know what she wants. Rosie hates everyone for most of the book:

Rosie hears them outside the window. Teresa and Marco and Martha chatting away about the home mostly. As if the house, like their neighbours, belonged to Martha from the beginning, when it was Rosie’s mum who came first. She passes St Joan of Arc’s Church and old Signora Bitch Face from across the road is gossiping to one of her cronies, giving Rosie the evil eye. Fuck you all, she wants to say.

Here we see the way that Marchetta shows us that the language we use to describe the world can often be superficial. There is often a deeper counterintuitive meaning which is more to do with anger and vulnerability and Rosie doesn’t know how to hold these in her body with any kind of clarity. When Rosie really begins to enter adulthood is in the last and smallest section of the book entitled ‘Going Home’; this is where she starts to figure out how to accept that our past present and futures live side by side.

Rosie and Martha have to learn to let their guard down, like Jimmy, who says exactly what he means and wears his heart on his sleeve. Martha needs to stop having sex in the car with her new boyfriend like a teenager and invite him into the house, Rosie needs to recognise that she probably needs other people as much as she needs the house on Dalhousie Street. Maybe at the end of the day this book, and all Marchetta’s others are really about what it means to come home to ourselves. What’s that famous Maya Angelou quote? ‘You only are free when you realize you belong no place – you belong every place.’