Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Review: The House of Memories by Monica McInerney

How do you go on living when your whole world has collapsed? And how do you go on living amongst the people who you blame for your world's collapse, even if they are the people you love most? In Monica McInerney's newest novel, The House of Memories, Ella O'Hanlon thinks that she can't but that there's no peace or healing until you find a way to offer forgiveness.

Ella is completely and understandably gutted by the death of her small son Felix. She is angry, furious really, and she runs away from her beloved husband Aidan, going from town to town throughout Australia, finding jobs, and then fleeing again. She does her best not to think, not to remember, not to feel, not to accept the pain. In her desire to escape, physically and mentally from those she blames for Felix's death and from her own guilt and self-loathing, she finally runs to her uncle Lucas Fox's large, dilapidated, messy house in London. Ella's uncle has long been a safe haven for her, through her parents' divorce, her mother's remarriage, and the arrival of half sister Jess who seems to have hung the moon in Ella's mother and stepfather's eyes. Although Lucas lived thousands of miles away, he was always there for Ella, offering gentle advice and providing her with a much needed outlet. So it's not much of a surprise that she would eventually run to him in the wake of this overwhelming loss.

But things are different this time around. Ella is an adult and although she's found comfort at Lucas' house before, now she also has to contend with the memories she has of meeting her husband there several years prior and the golden time they spent together, memories that lead her back to her precious toddler and the unimaginable loss of him. As Ella settles into Lucas' house, she cooks and cleans for him and the student tutors living with him. She also agrees to investigate the current tutors since Lucas has gotten some calls from his clients, all incredibly rich and some very famous, that pricey things have gone missing in their homes.  It gives her a sense of purpose, even if she's not entirely certain how to go about it, and it also gives her another avenue through which to avoid facing her feelings over Felix's death.

There's only one other family member Ella hasn't cut off in her grief, her stepbrother Charlie, a wonderful, funny man who lives in the US with his wife and children. He and Ella immediately hit it off when their parents married, quickly becoming a united front. When their half sister Jess was born later, there wasn't room for her demanding, center stage personality in their relationship. Although Charlie is a world away from Ella now, they have maintained their closeness, but Ella can no longer read Charlie's funny weekly family update emails, shunting them unread into a folder on her computer.  She is unready to witness family happiness when her own small family has been destroyed.  Neither Lucas nor Charlie can convince Ella to speak to Aidan or to Jess and her relationship with her mother and stepfather, which has been strained since Jess' birth and their clear favoritism for her, is even more distant than it once was.

As Ella tries to sleepwalk through her life in London, Jess, an actress, is also making her way from Australia to London in hopes of getting her big break in the West End. Because of the longtime animosity and antagonism between the two, no one wants to tell Ella that Jess is there as well, afraid that the information will send her fleeing again. As Ella lives in the house containing so many good memories of her courtship with Aidan, she starts to face her grief and all of the feelings of blame she has been harboring for more than a year and a half. And in facing her feelings, she comes to understand that family is imperfect and we all have resentments from the past that color our present but that sometimes family is all we have. And only they can help her try to move forward and live again despite the Felix shaped hole forever seared into her heart.

Told mainly from Ella's perspective, it is easy to feel her insecurity over her place growing up in her blended family and how that affected all of her interactions over the years, even before Felix was born, lived his short, happy life, and died. But in order to get a little bit of perspective as well, the narrative also includes Charlie's hilarious emails about life in the trenches with a successful wife and four entertaining children, Jess' chirpily cheerful diary entries, and Aidan's heartbreaking letters to Felix. All of them, as well as the rest of the family, grieve the loss of this sunny little boy but they all take different paths and because Ella's grief and sense of loss is so enormous and overwhelming, she can't see that she is only alone because she determinedly and intentionally has closed everyone else out.

Despite the balance that the other narratives offer, the characters still come across as true to the way that Ella sees them. Jess, whatever her pain, is the spoiled favorite, never having had to stand on her own two feet. Lucas is caring and stalwart and capable of tough love if need be. His girlfriend is unpleasant, abrasive, and unsympathetic, a character you can't help but dislike and whose appeal to Lucas remains unfathomable. Charlie is funny and kind and always able to understand Ella, even if he can't reach her in her deepest pain. Aidan is more elusive because Ella works so hard to forget what she loved about him. And Ella's mother is rather distant and wrapped up in Jess without ever acknowledging Ella's feelings of exclusion. Because Ella's strong opinions of each character form the reader's view of each of them, it is difficult (and in some cases, impossible) to temper those views even after the whole truth of Felix's death and its effect on each of the adults comes clear. This will always be a family that grapples with all of the hurts and blame and heartbreak of the past but they just might be able to find peace and happiness again as well.  Our past will always be with us in large and small ways, happy and sad, but the lesson is in moving forward and in forgiving and acknowledging that we all do the best we can as we live, love, and make mistakes. A sad but hopeful novel about grief and love and family, this is an engrossing read.

Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy of this book for review.

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