I’m thrilled that today is publication day for my friend Elizabeth Gentry’s novel Housebound. I’ve been rereading it this week, and what a pleasure it’s been. As I wrote earlier, I read the novel in draft form and loved it then, so it was fun to reread and see what changes she’s made to make it even better. I’ve read a lot of Elizabeth’s writing over the years, and my response is always, oh, this is exactly the kind of writing I like! Things happen in her books, but the focus is on the characters and their experience of consciousness. The books are about what happens in the mind as much as in the world. Her writing has a very distinctive voice, a thoughtful, deeply insightful voice that makes me think about the world in a new way. But it’s also a little bit strange, in an entirely good way, a little eerie and dark. It’s beautiful, and entirely unconventional.
Housebound tells the story of 19-year-old Maggie and her family, who live an isolated life in a large, oddly-shaped house. Maggie is the oldest of nine siblings, in a family that undermines the stereotype of large families as close-knit, their houses full of noise and chaos. This is a cautious, guarded family, with an emotionally-absent set of parents and a habit of watching each other carefully, making sure everyone follows the rules that, at this point, don’t have to be named. Everyone just knows what they are. The children are home-schooled, and their only social interaction, at least in recent years, is with neighbors they meet on the way to town to go to the library once a week. They spend their time doing their lessons, reading, and playing quiet games. They know that one of the rules is not to wander beyond the boundaries of their land; in particular, they are not supposed to visit their neighbors, who are few and far between.
It becomes clear soon enough that the family has been under some kind of spell, and that this spell is now showing signs of weakening. The novel opens with Maggie’s decision to leave: “Leaving home felt like tunneling out of a snow that had kept everyone housebound so long they had run out of things to talk about.” From there, the opening paragraph circles back to what it had been like when the spell descended:
There were no more anecdotes, poetry recitations, ghost stories, contrived games, or late-night disclosures before the wood stove. Rather than building their knowledge of one another in successive cycles of irritation and love, memorizing each new layer as they aged and grew, the eleven members of the family had simply succumbed, once and for all, to a silence that turned them into strangers … They felt suspended, always waiting for someone else to make the first move — to take a turn with the bath, to return with fresh wood, to put the pot on to boil, to summon to supper, and most of all, to grow up and to leave.
But now, Maggie has decided she’s ready for a job and drives into the nearby city with her father to find one. The events of the novel take place during the days between getting the job and moving to the city to start it, a strange, suspended time when Maggie is still part of the family, but newly separated from it as well. She begins to venture out into forbidden spaces, to visit the neighbors she’s not supposed to visit.
The question of what Maggie will discover is what drives the plot forward, but along the way, there is so much to notice. The novel has a fairytale quality to it, with witch-like figures, frightening grandmothers, lost memories, suspended time, and the sense of a magic spell settling on the house. There is a definitive emphasis on the menacing, eerie aspects of fairy tales and the threatening sexuality that underlies many of them. Nature is menacing as well; rather than being a benign or a healing force, nature repulses and repels the characters. It’s forever threatening to invade their house — most importantly in the form of a rat that bites Maggie one night — and requires never-ending labor to contain. Even something as potentially pleasurable as reading takes on a dark cast in this novel: the characters are forever escaping into stories in ways that do not seem entirely healthy.
The novel is about isolation and loneliness, as Maggie does battle in a sense against these menacing forces all by herself. The focus isn’t entirely on her, however; the point of view shifts regularly into that of other characters, so that we learn, slowly, what the other siblings and the parents are experiencing. We even, briefly, get into the perspective of the rat. This gives the book a sense of richness as we come to understand the emotional and psychological complexity of everything going on in this very quiet, seemingly still, house.
So, as a way to celebrate publication day, I’d like to give away a copy of the book someone who might like to read it. If you would like a copy, just leave a comment on this post letting me know, and if more than one person is interested, I’ll choose a name at random at the end of the day next Friday. I’m happy to send the book internationally, so everyone is welcome.