Lisa Gorton’s The Life of Houses is a beautiful study of home, of how we’re shaped by where we come from no matter how close we are to that place. The Life of Houses begins when Anna wants time to explore the new relationship she has entered after a recent divorce - a chance to heal, to love and be loved, to be someone new. Though Anna has been estranged from her family for years, she sends her daughter Kit to the coastal town of Anna’s childhood to spend time with her ailing grandparents and aunt. Kit’s presence brings old tensions to the surface as memories are explored through new eyes.
Though Gorton’s novel relies heavily on character study and place rather than plot, there’s an intimacy that connects you and holds your attention. The house is at the centre of the book, as it is in the lives of the characters, and as it crumbles it becomes a metaphor for the relationships within the family to whom it belongs. There’s something quite formal about the idea of the house, passed down from generation to generation as a legacy of a name. A stifling feeling that Anna, who has distanced herself from the house and family as much as she is able, is unable to shake:
Cautiously, like pressing a bruise, she tested what she felt, being back. In one way, the house was exactly as she remembered it, everything in the same place; and yet it was not as it had ever seemed. The house was keeping itself back from her.
In this feature on The Life of Houses for the Sydney Morning Herald, Lisa Gorton is quoted in explaining her focus on the house as a way of telling the story of the family:
"I could never find my place in these archetypal pioneer stories of Australia, all about men, a sense of conquering the landscape.”
This rings true to me, the alienation of the traditionally masculine identity Australia has created for itself - of harsh winds, dry and stifling heat, the strength required to conquer great distance - when in my mind and in my own experience my Australian identity is so informed by a matriarchal lineage. It’s what connected me so strongly to Alice Robinson’s Anchor Point, and what resonated with me in The Life of Houses. In the same interview Lisa Gorton explains how her own experience with this came to inform the writing of the novel:
“In the novel there's this sense that you can find yourself in your mother or in your child, but you also have to free yourself from that … to negotiate a personality.
It took me a while to figure out that fitted in with the idea of property: what belongs to you, as opposed to other people's desires and expectations for you.”
In many ways the most powerful line in the book comes in it’s final pages as Anna says “Here I can only ever be a child of the house.” There’s a wonderful humility shown by Gorton in the writing of this phrase that we never shake off the unease of our own identity. We like to think that when we go out into the world that we shape our own sense of who we are, yet no matter what our age, we are still constantly informed by the place and people that made us, and the hierarchical relationships we inhabit still have the power to change us. Watching a powerful, successful woman such as Anna regress to teenage behaviours reminds us that we all exhibit these traits, no matter how independent we perceive ourselves to be.
Outside of this close character study Gorton also uses tightly controlled prose like a brush to paint pictures of the Australian landscape, such as this beautiful description of a typical Australian street:
They had stopped outside a hair salon. ‘Passer’s by welcome’ read a sign taped to the inside glass. The salon was deserted: row of chairs facing a wall of mirrors. The linoleum gleamed. Somewhere nearby, somebody was mowing grass. Next to the beauty salon, weatherboard houses had signboards by their gates. Chinese medicine acupuncture massage had a cobwebby wind chime by the door. In the window of Tax Accountant Conveyancing and Wills a cat, lying in the sun between the curtain and the glass, raised its head and fixed on them it's green affronted stare.
Gorton’s prose is rich in description and detail, yet has a paired back starkness to it, an obvious inheritance from Gorton's poetry. It allows her to build the house as a symbol of mortality with striking effect: the tattered wallpaper, bleached curtains, rising damp smell, all contribute to the feeling of unease and claustrophobia Anna experiences. Gorton beautifully balances the feeling of a place being both a blessing and a burden, particularly when separated by distance. It’s a feel I increasingly hold about going home to Adelaide — there’s something lovely about it being separate from my every day life, like it is safe and protected and can be a place to visit as a retreat, to reconnect. But there are also common feelings of burden, of feeling obliged to visit when so much of my life is here in Melbourne, and that every visit feels rushed as I try to cram in time with family and friends, never really feeling like I’ve spent enough time with people, and never enough time to sit back and enjoy the place - to enjoy the green hills, the broad sparkling beaches, the open space, the clean air, the air of quiet peace. Gorton shows these conflicted ideas of home, the right and wrong images we hold in our mind:
Anna pulled back the curtains. Suddenly that view, so familiar that seeing it again was less like seeing it than rediscovering it within herself: that uneven curve against the thin pale blue summer morning sky. She opened the window. In the city the sea was wrong because it did not smell like this., this salt-dry smell of the garden.
We may have difficult relationships with home, with what it means to us and the history that weaves its way into the walls and under our skin, but no matter how hard we try to shake it, we can’t let these places go. They stay with us, as snapshots of ourselves. We hold onto the idea that we shape the places we live in, but Gorton reminds us that we are just as shaped by the places in which we live.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about neighbourhoods. When I was home in Adelaide back in December I went back to the neighbourhood I grew up in for the first time in close to twenty years (I wrote about this in my post for The Strays). Walking the streets, imagining myself riding my bike to the park, remembering where my friends lived, thinking about the walks I used to take with my Dad after dinner, I felt more at home than I had for a long time. The neighbourhood that I currently live in here in Melbourne has been very kind to me. Since we moved in nearly two years ago, we’ve made it our home. Most of our good friends live on the same tram line, so it’s easy to catch up locally. There’s a lovely community here, which you see sprawling out of cafes day and night, as friends and family spend time together. As long as we’re based in Melbourne, I can’t imagine living too far from here.
So it has been a slightly strange experience to pick a new base. As we look for somewhere to stay when we first arrive in Berlin, we’ve been researching neighbourhoods as much (indeed probably slightly more) than the apartments themselves. As kids we rarely have a say in the neighbourhood that we grow up in, and yet this is the place that most of us clearly identify as our true home. So it’s strange that as adults we place so much importance on choosing the neighbourhood that’s right for us — are we trying to recreate the best of where we’ve come from, or are we too caught up in the conveniences and facilities that we need in order to live day to day? Or are we focussed on the people around us, hoping that our neighbourhood grows into a community? We currently live above a shop, so we don’t really have neighbours outside our building, and we hardly even know the people who we share the building with, but given how many friends live close by, we still feel surrounded by ‘our people’.
I guess in trying to pick a new neighbourhood for ourselves, we’re trying to find a new community. In Berlin we can never be surrounded by friends that we’ve known as long or care for as deeply as the ones we share a neighbourhood with now, but we can hope that somewhere new offers us the opportunity to meet new, likeminded people. That there will be good cafes close by where we can share leisurely weekend breakfasts and stories from the week gone by. That there will be a new market to explore with new foods to try. That we’ll feel safe and protected, able to walk the streets at night and admire the houses and gardens that surround us, like my Dad and I used to do. It’s hard to know if we’ll fit in, or whether it will feel like home. Neither my partner or I have ever been to Berlin before, so we’re diving in without much to go on. This newness makes it even more of an adventure and even more exciting, but it also brings uncertainty.
Yet somehow moving to the other side of the world feels easier than moving across town. Lisa Gorton hits on this feeling of uneasiness in the known but foreign, seeing the house through Kit’s eyes:
In France she had stayed in rooms which her mother and father had never seen. There it had been easy: she was foreign: nobody expected her - she did not expect herself - to know how to behave, how not to be rude or strange. But to be here, in their house, not knowing whether she should have a shower first or go straight to the kitchen (was it rude to have a shower without asking?) drove foreignness in.
Foreignness throws out expectations and gives us the freedom of being anonymous. When I first moved to Melbourne I knew very few people. After coming from Adelaide this was incredibly freeing and made me feel like I had the space to be who I wanted to be, rather than who people expected me to be. Every time I tell someone I’m going to Berlin, they tell me that they’re coming to Europe over summer, or that their best mate lives in Berlin, or that it seems like half of Melbourne has moved over there. To some this would feel comforting but it is making me increasingly uneasy. I want the freedom, the space, the foreign. I want to meet new people and stretch my ideas. I want to be forced to speak a new language and experience the foreignness of not understanding. I don’t want to feel like I’m tip-toeing around. Maybe this will change. After a few months of living in London I could walk around and run into people I knew and this became comforting, a sign of acceptance. In such a big crowded city this made me feel like I belonged, that I wasn’t a phoney desperately trying to fit in. In Adelaide it can feel stifling.
I don’t know where we’ll live in Berlin yet. I don’t know how long we’ll stay. I don’t know whether the neighbourhood we choose will feel foreign and exciting, or whether we’ll find a new community to call home. I do know that it won’t be easy, but actually I’m really excited about those parts too. I think being forced to work hard to make a new home will remind me how lucky we have it here in Melbourne. I want the anonymity of being in a new place as a chance to reset. Melbourne is in many ways a very comfortable place for me to live, but in a lot of ways it has become too easy. Too easy for me to keep saying yes to work, rather than committing to writing and caring for myself. Too easy to stay within the neighbourhood than venture out and discover new parts of the city. Too easy to keep to my group of close friends than make the effort to meet new people. Going to the other side of the world gives me the perfect opportunity to change up my every day. Hopefully in the process I’ll find a little piece of the world that feels like home too.
I was first taken by this recipe for Ginger Roasted Pumpkin and Quinoa Salad on Pinterest, but once I read the full post on My Darling Lemon Thyme, one of my favourite food blogs, it seemed like the perfect recipe. I love Emma’s honesty at the difficulties of uprooting her family from her home in New Zealand to the west coast of Australia (a crazy 5345.72km away despite the two countries being neighbours). As my partner and I prepare to pack up our existing home in order to make a new home for ourselves across the world, it was touching to here Emma’s story. Her recipe made a beautiful warm salad for dinner, with leftovers perfect the next day for lunches. The flavour comes from the pumpkin and the spices that coat it, so be sure to mix it well with the plain quinoa before serving. The coriander and lime bring a freshness that cuts through the starch of the pumpkin and quinoa, and bringing balance to the spicy garlic, ginger and chilli combination. It’s a simple, nourishing salad that requires just a few fresh ingredients and some quinoa from the pantry. Exactly the kind of simple cooking that can be done when trying to empty the pantry before moving, or while on holiday or at a new home with few supplies to hand. I foresee a lot of this salad in my future.
I loved this post on Brain Pickings about Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. Lamott encourages her readers to forgo perfectionism, to silence the critics and inner voice that says you’re not good enough, to stop making excuses and to make time to be yourself. Maria Popova pulls the following quote that pretty well sums up one of the biggest driving factors for me to uproot myself from Melbourne and go to the other side of the world: “What if you wake up some day, and you’re 65 … and you were just so strung out on perfectionism and people-pleasing that you forgot to have a big juicy creative life?”