It’s sometimes said that each book teaches you how to read it. That each way of telling a story needs to not only beguile anew but needs to tutor the reader in the ways to best attend its pages. Every book lives in a tradition and has a place within or across genre, so the best parallel is not learning a new language but tuning your ear to a new accent. And, perhaps reflective of a country where the most variance accents stretch to is the South Australian pronunciation of the long /aː/ in words like dance, much Australian literary fiction operates in a relatively narrow band of unfussy clarity.
Lisa Gorton’s The Life of Houses puts that overriding mode of short clear sentences into perspective, for hers is a novel of longer exhalations. Gorton is the poetry editor of the Australian Book Review and the author of poetry collections Press Release and Hotel Hyperion as well as a children’s novel, Cloudland. She works from the centre of Australia’s contemporary literary community, but her first adult novel calls back to an earlier literary tradition, from both here and overseas.
The Life of Houses alternates between the voices of women. Anna, a recently separated gallery owner attempting to further her affair with an emotionally slippery lawyer, packs her 15-year-old daughter Kitt off to her estranged ancestral home in a baking corner of rural south-eastern Australia. I hesitate to reveal much more of the plot, for there are pleasures in its unfolding that any summary would do a disservice. Despite what may be suspected of a novel written by a widely admired poet, its narrative architecture is grounded, confident and satisfying.
The Life of Houses’ chapter by chapter exchange between a mother in flight from the domestic and the daughter she sentences to it evokes images of Belgian artist Carsten Höller’s installation Roaming Beds. Currently on exhibition at London’s Hayward Gallery, two motorised beds, which each night contain sleepers, rove the gallery space in slow arcs of preternatural somnolence. These inching drifts into the unfamiliar suggest Gorton’s sense that the quotidian admits to the haunting with only a graceful nudge.
Expectations are difficult ethereal beasts – inexplicit and expansive in a way no arrive object can ever be. In this case, I raised a sceptical eyebrow at the blurb’s observation that The Life of Houses possessed ‘a style reminiscent of Henry James and Patrick White’. The invocation of writers such as these (unfairly, or at least incompletely) renowned for the thicket-like nature of their prose, risks both alienation and disappointment. But much hangs on the blurb’s use of the word ‘reminiscent’. Gorton’s style here is indeed heightened but nowhere approaches the multi-clause dictates of late James nor the dry distinctiveness of mid-period White. The late-modernist work that The Life of Houses most resembles is White’s unfinished draft The Hanging Garden, a suitably fragmentary and fidgety consideration of the near-impossibility of home.
‘She had been telling Peter the truth; though what she felt at the same time, and vertiginously, was that she could have been telling lies. This was why she and Matt had stopped going out for dinner, why hosts sat married couples apart at dinner parties: they had lost the ability to make themselves up in words, like characters in a book.’
This small passage plucked from a larger paragraph gives you a sense of Gorton’s style here: her careful, rhythmic use of subordinate and conditional clauses, the breathful pauses inherent in her commas, the drawing out of an image like a sigh. Figurative and supple, Gorton’s prose is both suggestive and explicit, in service of her central purpose – the small and large reverences bestowed on familiar places by recall: ‘places that lent the weight of fact to meetings that otherwise hung in memory like so many hallucinations.’
The Life of Houses is choreographed with a depth of noticing that speaks of performance more than place setting. Like a dancer whose grace is dependant on the support of muscles and tendons, this novel is beautiful, sure and slightly elusive.