Cover of book: The Life of Houses

Lisa Gorton
The Life of Houses

An establishment family, a decaying colonial country property, an estranged daughter lost to the big smoke – The Life of Houses has all the ingredients of a dreadful family saga and is nothing of the sort. Instead, for her debut novel, Melbourne author Lisa Gorton has crafted something much more eerie and elusive. Gallery owner Anna, having recently separated from her husband, sends away her teenage daughter, Kit, to spend a week with her grandparents in their crumbling seaside home. Anna will spend the week pursuing a new love affair, while Kit will come to know her mother’s childhood home and the family from whom she has chosen to keep her distance. “This house will come to you, of course,” Kit’s grandmother tells her, but it’s unclear if that’s good fortune or a curse. The house has fusty old rooms, a terrible tacked-on kitchen and the obscure, bewildering stench of other people’s longings and disappointments.

This is a novel written by a poet – Gorton is the author of two award-winning collections, Press Release and Hotel Hyperion – and it reads like it. The action is not so much in characters’ deeds as in their impressions. There’s a restraint and a purity to Gorton’s prose, not allowing expendable words, or even commas, to slouch around on the page. She is especially alive to smells and sounds and captures the dry heat and glare of high summer in south-eastern Australia vividly: “Kit stepped into the cicada noise. After a few steps it seemed less the cry of living creatures than a sound effect of the heat, which had settled into the dirt and now burned upwards.” The plot features characters from the art world and Gorton shares an artist’s obsession with light. On almost every page, she describes the haunting effects of light on buildings, on rooms, on bodies.

Much of the intriguing action takes place inside characters’ heads, and one occasionally wishes these fascinating people would stop staring into distances, contemplating wallpaper and noticing the interesting effects of dappled sunlight, and maybe do a bit more to advance the plot. But the theme of Gorton’s story – how the physical structures people inhabit can hold dormant desires, regrets and even destinies – suits the gradual pace and the emphasis on mood. The Life of Houses is subtle, accomplished and slow-burning.  SR

Giramondo, 232pp, $26.95

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 18, 2015 as "Lisa Gorton, The Life of Houses".

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Reviewer: SR

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