Delicious descriptions: Fiona McFarlane thinks a house can be a character
In another life, well, not quite another life, but in my pre-blog life when I discussed books online via listserv reading groups, I became involved in various literary discussions. One of these was whether a house or place can be a character. Some of us argued they could because they could be seen to act or react, to reflect mood, and so on. Others argued they couldn’t because they couldn’t develop the way characters can. The argument was never resolved. In other words, I suspect we all remained in our original positions. As you might have guessed, I was in the former camp. Of course, a house or place is not a person, but if an author personifies them in some way, imbues them with “spirit” or “emotion”, then I’m happy to “see” this in terms of character, albeit a different sort of character. I’d argue that Fiona McFarlane, whose The night guest I reviewed earlier this week, would agree.
Here is a description of the protagonist Ruth’s house after Frida comes to be her “carer”:
The house took to Frida; it opened up. Ruth sat in her chair and watched it happen. She saw the bookcases breathe easier as Frida dusted and rearranged them; she saw the study expect its years’ worth of Harry-hoarded paperwork. She had never seen such perfect oranges as the ones Frida brought in her little string bag. The house and the oranges and Ruth waited every weekday morning for Frida to come in her golden taxi, and when they left they fell into silences of relief and regret. Ruth found herself looking forward to the disruption of her days; she was a little disgusted at herself for succumbing so quickly.
Of course, McFarlane is using the house to represent Ruth’s state of mind, to represent Ruth “seeing” herself adopt and adapt, but still, I can describe that as the house having, or even being, character.
A little later in the novel, when Ruth has two guests in the house causing tensions, she worries:
Now she would lose him because of Frida, and Frida because of him; and with that, her last before sleep, the whole house emptied out.
Of course, the whole house didn’t empty out. All three were still there, but the sense (or fear) of psychic emptiness is palpable. Perhaps this is not the house having/being character exactly, but I’m not averse to seeing it that way.
What do you think? Do you ever see a house or place (a setting, in other words) as being or having character?