The Australian poet and scholar Lisa Gorton’s debut novel The Life of Houses, in its quiet way, observes three generations of one family enduring a week of emotional disorder and rupture. The youngest, Kit, a girl in her mid-teens, reaches the turning point of her adolescence. Her parents seem to be in the process of splitting up and her mother’s extramarital love affair lurches towards its moment of truth. And her grandparents, an eccentric elderly couple living in an old, large and neglected country house on the Victorian coast, are brought by an unexpected health crisis to the end of domestic life as they know it. The novel’s pace may seem leisurely, its voice measured and its mode of expression thoughtful and reflective, but its subject matter is operatic: sex, class, family, love, death, change, and the pull of the past.
The containment of these things in houses, and the ways in which they are shaped by houses, are central to Gorton’s material and hence her title. ‘The life of houses’ is a phrase of precise and careful ambiguity: it could mean the human life within houses, but in Gorton’s universe it also means that houses themselves have a life of their own. Readers familiar with her poetry will know how ubiquitous houses are there, houses and rooms: how often and in how many different contexts they appear. Her poetry abounds with doorways and halls, with tables and windows and changes in the interior light. The same applies in this novel, where the family home, the Sea House, is practically one of the main characters, a significant place in the region and the repository of unsettling settler stories and a family history going well back into the nineteenth century. Sea House, it’s said, has its own inhabiting spirit, the ghost of a young girl, victim of the usual brutal story.
The mother-daughter dyad is at the centre of the novel’s cast of characters; the others exist in relation to them. Anna’s married lover Peter has left his wife for her, though neither her daughter Kit nor her husband Matt, who has gone to London perhaps for good, knows anything yet about the affair. Anna’s parents Patrick and Audrey, relics of a bygone Australia, live in the imposing, decaying Sea House in a little town on the Victorian coast, where they are cared for by Anna’s pragmatic, kind-hearted, people-pleasing sister Treen.
Patrick and Audrey are remnants of what passes in Australia for ‘old money’, with the ludicrous, open snobbery that sometimes goes with it. Here in the twenty-first century, rejecting everything that goes on beyond the verandah, they are in retreat from social change and indeed from the world. And the family has fecklessly run through its considerable money, as Anna explains to Peter in the first chapter when trying to explain her background:
Yes, impossible to explain to him how it had been, the atmosphere of that house, at once overwrought and passive. The laziness of rubbish collectors, the rudeness of summer holiday-makers, the corruption of their local council … for her parents these were not single annoyances: they opened into an entire rejection of what went on outside their property. Always formal with each other, her parents’ only intimacy was a shared obsession with the past.
She said ‘Their trouble was they were rich. My grandfather must have been spectacularly incompetent … It isn’t property for them; it’s history, so long as you take history to be a sort of borrowed self-importance.’
Gorton is the granddaughter of former Australian Prime Minister John Gorton and the wife of a descendant of William Wentworth: she knows better than most people what sort of baggage comes with being part of an Old Australian Family and she can be incidentally savage about that, as when Kit sits by the sleeping Audrey and reads a fragment of the notes for her interminable family history of Sea House:
Treen had given her a pair of scissors to cut paragraphs apart and a stick of glue to paste them onto sheets, on which she had written headings in red capitals. Kit read, ‘A senior constable drove over the lawn in front of my parents, which showed that he was not of their class. Nonetheless they greeted him with perfect manners and did not remark …’
Her grandmother slept noisily.
Anna’s frank dislike of her parents is reciprocated; Patrick and Audrey feel, rightly, that her life so far – her flight as a young woman to England, her marriage to a well-off Englishman, her subsequent success as a Melbourne gallery director – has involved a rejection not only of them but of their values. They also resent the memory of her frequent requests, as a young woman, for them to send her money – not only because it was her only form of communication and perhaps because in their weird code such requests qualify as vulgar, but also, presumably, because these requests have reminded them that they have so little.
But Anna too is an extraordinarily unpleasant character – perhaps it’s hereditary – and it’s hard to know what Gorton’s aim was in making her so: intelligent, articulate, professionally successful and physically attractive, Anna is also brittle, chilly, openly rude and often downright nasty. Almost every scene involving her is liberally scattered with unequivocal words: ‘annoyed’, ‘resenting’, ‘galling’, ‘rude’, ‘mockingly’, ‘unkindly’, ‘nervy antagonism’, ‘malignly’, ‘brittle’, ‘malice’, ‘contempt’ and ‘dissatisfaction’ are all used in direct relation to Anna – and that’s just in the first 17 pages. She is irritated, annoyed or disgusted by almost everything: ‘Anna was so often irritated that she had disciplined her gestures.’ Gorton works overtime to make the reader dislike Anna but it’s hard to tell why, and for me at least this is one of the few weaknesses in the book. Perhaps it’s meant to show the bitterness of spirit produced by her parents’ stubborn adherence to the house and through it to the past, their refusal to sell a strip of land and send her some desperately needed money; perhaps one of the messages of the book is that clinging to the past warps the present and threatens the future.
The other two characters who are more than incidental are Anna’s sister Treen and the long-estranged friend of her adolescence, Scott, who like Treen has remained in the seaside town and has paid dearly for it, never quite managing to get out into, and become a part of, the wider world. Like Anna, Scott was an ambitious and ‘artistic’ teenager but he too, like Treen, has remained in the small town in order to care for ageing parents, and they both give off an air of failure and disappointment. He forges a weird, unlikely, embryonic friendship with Kit and it’s easy to forget that he is old enough to be her father; he speaks to her as an adult, which she isn’t, and an equal, which she also isn’t, but his interest in and concern for her is laced with hostility and malice:
‘What I like about you is how you take so much for granted. You come here and you don’t once stop to wonder how it might be for anyone else … And your poor aunt, desperate to know you, frightened to speak in case you go running home. No, what’s so nice is, you don’t even notice.’
Houses carry a heavy freight of meaning for most of Gorton’s characters and play a significant part in their values and their choices. Near the beginning, Anna’s lover Peter tells her that in ending his own marriage, he has given his wife the house, and this is clearly meant both by him and by Gorton to convey the depth and seriousness of his commitment to Anna; Anna and Peter both invest Peter’s first visit to her own house with significance: ‘They were both too conscious of what it meant, his coming to the house … Contained excitement gave an electric quality to his smallest gestures.’ Kit, thinking of the rupture between her parents and the developing disintegration of the family, thinks of their neat and tasteful house in Melbourne as she travels back towards it on the train: ‘She saw the house entire: already a wrecked house.’ Anna, waking from a dream in an impersonal hotel room, thinks of the way her own house shapes her daily life:
Half asleep still, the image had held for her a dream’s power: the house less a place than a cluster of habits belonging to left and right, upstairs and down: the place where she became free of her bag, where she stood with a knife in her hand, where she sat down with a drink.
Patrick, in one of his several moments of frank snobbery, uses his territorial instincts about the Sea House as a kind of Sorting Hat for gauging a neighbour’s social class:
‘That is a vulgar woman.’ Patrick set his teacup in its saucer with a click. … He said: ‘She came right into the house. … A different woman would have stopped at the door. Simply have stopped at the door,’ he repeated with a flourish of his hands.
‘Dad, more tea?’ Treen stacked the plates.
He lifted one hand to brush off her question. ‘Right into Audrey’s room.’
Even the local hospital, where much of Part Three takes place, is a converted mansion, another relic of a moneyed past. And most significantly, there’s the revelation early in the book that Sea House belongs to Audrey, not Patrick, and will be left, not to Anna or Treen, but to Kit. Bought for his sister by Audrey’s own grandfather, a nineteenth century admiral, the house has passed down through a dog-leg line of women: the admiral’s sister Edith, Edith’s niece-in-law Katie, Katie’s niece Audrey, and soon Audrey’s granddaughter Kit.
This, perhaps more than anything else, subtly reinforces the point that above all this is a book about women; the line of succession has been neither patriarchal nor straight. Patrick and Audrey are full of stories about the people and the house, but still we see it mainly through the eyes of Kit, who drifts through its many rooms full of antique furniture and complicated light, her responses instinctual and sensory but mostly wordless, except when she is able to find an acceptable sentence for her grandmother: ‘It’s a beautiful house.’ But mostly she feels its power and the often uncomfortable, tidal tug of its history, as when Treen first shows her to her room:
Still, she was not used to old houses: this one had so many walls, so many rooms full of silence. For Kit, the strangeness of this house made it complete, unassailable … This was furniture she would not be able to move an inch. A dressing table dominated the corner by the window. Its three mirrors, passing light back and forth between them, emphasised the inwardness of the room. Only the tattiness of the wallpaper, cream, scattered with faded green roses, only the curtains, sun-bleached past any name for green, recalled the sea: a dissatisfied murmur, an uneasy damp smell haunting the room.
Kit has these silent moments of communion with the house all through the book, not always positive in their emotional content but always detailed and dreamlike. On her first exploration of the house in the early morning after her arrival she is almost overwhelmed by the High Victorian phalanxes of furniture, which tip her already unsteady adolescent sense of self further off balance:
Her reflection wavered in the mirrored hall table. Beyond it on both sides doors opened into wide, bay-windowed rooms crowded with armchairs, chaise longues, nesting tables, intricate decorative boxes, tapestried firescreens, sideboards, glass-fronted cabinets. The blinds were drawn in these rooms. The half-light gave them an underwater look.
Given the attitude to the house first of its inhabitants and then of Kit, it’s quite shocking for the reader, late in the story, to see the house through the eyes of Anna when she arrives there, in response to a family crisis, for the first time since her youth:
It was past belief, it was a sort of madness, the state this house was in: Audrey’s room reeking of urine, everywhere the smell of dust and mice, termites in the verandah posts. Anna could still feel under her finger the crumbling wood, so eaten out it gave way like icing sugar.
Her sense that after all this time she is still a prisoner of Sea House and of her own childhood in it makes her want to obliterate the past:
With a sudden weightless feeling she pictured bulldozers going through it: a cleared space, torn ground. But even to her, the picture was like a child’s tantrum: impotent defiance. This house, could it be destroyed?
The proliferation of Creative Writing programs and workshops over the last few decades has produced a flood of well-structured, carefully written, exhaustively edited fiction across the Anglosphere and no doubt beyond. It’s hard to know quite what this is about, but I can think of two things, and they are connected. One is the inevitable conflation of art with entertainment that comes with a neoliberal mindset where everything is measured by price, and the other is the allure of celebrity culture: everybody wants to be a writer. Perhaps this was always true, but as a mass ambition it is much more visible since it became so easy to buy instruction, and since writers’ festivals and literary events began, in the 1980s, to proliferate like mushrooms after rain. Random Googling throws up endless workshops and classes in assorted writerly skills: not just grammar or plot structure or dialogue, but super-specialised and intriguing topics: the unreliable narrator, world-building, terza rima.
On the whole these classes and workshops are a good thing. They provide would-be writers with context, information, signposts, feedback, and solid practical skills. But what they don’t and can’t and shouldn’t be expected to provide is the singular way of seeing the world that marks the writing of every author whose works and words you have ever remembered after you closed the book. Auden said it first and best in his 1974 Paris Review interview: asked if he had ever taught writing, he replied,
No, I never have. If I had to ‘teach poetry’, which, thank God, I don’t, I would concentrate on prosody, rhetoric, philology, and learning poems by heart. I may be quite wrong, but I don’t see what can be learned except purely technical things.
One of the main reasons for Gorton’s status as a highly respected, prize-winning Australian poet is her unique and personal angle of vision on the world. It’s something that, as Auden surmises, cannot be taught. ‘… mallee scrub is the colour of thirst / with an infrastructure of patience’, she writes in ‘Solitaire’, and either you see that or you don’t; nobody can teach you how. Figurative thinking is the essence of Gorton’s vision, and central to that is personification: rooms, houses, landscapes, and vistas from the verandah are invested with sentience, as though they were looking back at you and thinking their own thoughts. Even abstractions themselves have agency and feelings: a poem called ‘Sleeping In’ begins with the line ‘Morning starts without us’.
Gorton’s way of seeing the world and of naming its parts is the quality that sets her debut novel apart from the mass of fiction currently being published in Australia. My work as a regular fiction reviewer and as a judge of the Stella Prize has meant that over the last three years I have read at least 300 novels by Australian women. Some of those novels are exceptionally good, – but if The Life of Houses had been published at the time and entered for the prize, it would have leaped out from the pack. Most contemporary novels favour substance a long way over style, which can lead to a lot of commonplace sentences. But as one might expect from a poet, Gorton’s every sentence – and not just every sentence, but every phrase and every word – has been turned this way and that in the light of her attention and fitted to the next with the precision of a mosaicist, her lapidary approach to language a reminder that she wrote her Oxford doctoral thesis – she is a Rhodes Scholar – on the poetry and prose of John Donne.
This approach has something to do with the relationship between language and nonverbal experience, and the application of the former to the latter. For Gorton it seems not so much a matter of finding le mot juste as of making something entirely new: not merely choosing the word or naming the non-verbal thing it represents, but of using metaphor to create a new and separate third entity in which a word or phrase brings an inchoate, intangible feeling, sensation or memory out of the shadows and into the sunlight of consciousness:
Shyness, its exaggeration of feeling, gave character to all she saw. Those shadows the iron lace cast across the rug of enormous roses: she felt them imprint themselves in her; she would remember them for years.
Of all the Australian novels I have read over the last three or four years, I can think of only two that bring quite this degree of conscious and highly personal attention to language and style at the cellular level of diction and syntax: Alexis Wright’s The Swan Book and Michelle de Kretser’s Questions of Travel. Both of these novels demonstrate that it is entirely possible to be an original and accomplished stylist while writing ideologically engaged fictions with clear agendas, despite the popular notion that these two things are somehow mutually exclusive. But Gorton’s novel is less of an argument and more of a painting, a visual representation of a certain kind of family in a particular time and place, a picture from which it is possible to deduce its subjects’ character, class, and mood: a Vermeer or a Pieter de Hooch, showing rooms in shadowy houses and ordinary people in attitudes of contemplation, standing in a certain slant of light.