In her visceral, compassionate 2017 biography The Trauma Cleaner, Sarah Krasnostein prodded open doors we prefer to keep shut. She detailed the life and work of Sandra Pankhurst, founder of Specialised Trauma Cleaning Services. Cleaner and biographer scattered the rats, toppled the piles of hoarded newspapers and found the bodies of people who died alone.
Paddy O’Reilly steps over this threshold in her brilliant new novel, Other Houses, which is centred on a house cleaner named Lily, her partner, Janks, who is a former drug addict, and her late-teen daughter, Jewelee.
Lily and her friend Shannon – who is a little older, a bit more experienced – clean rich people’s houses in Melbourne. Unlike Pankhurst, they are not cleaning up after corpses, though this possibility does emerge at one point. Nevertheless, they witness disorder – material and emotional – that their clients want to keep private.
“The clients pay us for more than our skills of wiping and mopping and scrubbing,” Lily thinks. “They pay us to put their houses and perhaps their lives in order, to give them a sense that things are under control, to give them succour in newly clean and tidy worlds. It’s a contract in which our discretion is the unspoken rule.”
That contract, that unspoken rule, is put to the test when Janks borrows money from a bikie gang to fund his stepdaughter’s school trip to Greece. Late in his payments, he realises he has made the “biggest mistake of my mistake-ridden life”.
It’s a novel about people living on the margins. “This city is vast,” Lily notes. “But my life in it so small.”
The story is told by Lily and Janks in alternating chapters. When it opens, Janks is missing and Lily does not know why. “Maybe he’s hiding from someone. Maybe he’s hiding from me.” She thinks of her “old life”, where “bongs and needles and spoons [were] the only shiny decorations”.
The more she learns as she searches for Janks, the more she wonders: “Is Janks worth this?”
It’s sobering reading but also full of humour. Lily’s “I have seen many a turd in my cleaning life” soliloquy could be the light relief in a Shakespeare drama.
Other Houses is O’Reilly’s fourth novel and her first in eight years. It is more than worth the wait.
Affirm Press, 252pp, $32.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 23, 2022 as "Other Houses, Paddy O’Reilly".
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