I hadn’t heard of Anna Spargo-Ryan’s novel, The paper-house, when it was sent to me for review, which is not surprising given it’s a debut novel. However, I loved the cover – designed by one of Australia’s top book designers, Sandy Cull – and so was more than willing to give it a go. It traverses some familiar ground, grief and loss, and mental illness, but it did so differently enough to keep me well engaged.
The novel starts with a young couple, Heather and Dave, in a strong, happy relationship. They decide to have a child and that this means buying a house to accommodate their new family. They see one south of Melbourne and immediately know that’s it. And already here, by page 4, as she describes the end of their house-hunting, we have garnered a good sense Spargo-Ryan’s clear but evocative writing:
After six weeks of looking and imagining, we ate teacakes on the western side of the peninsula and our hearts stayed behind when we left.
So simply said – no florid adjectives – but so arresting in its clarity. And it also encompasses two motifs which feature strongly in the novel, hearts and imaginings. Indeed the book opens with the line “My heart fell out on a spring morning”. We know, right then, that this is going to be a story about feelings – not to mention, also, that our writer has a wonderful turn of phrase!
Another strong thread in the novel is that of gardens. Their new house, of course, has a garden:
And the garden: a maze of established trees and crouching shrubs and flowers with bees on them and the faint trickle of water. A garden in which to wander, in which to get lost. For picnics and parties. It breathed in time with me and spat me out into the afternoon air, where the sea caught on the updraft and shot through the corridors. I watched it heave and change as it became night.
It’s a big garden, one which disappears from view behind a “row of pittosporums with their straight backs”, one with “good solid pittos … [which] keep the neighbours out of your business”. These pittosporums become a sort of reference point in the novel for her experience of the garden and, in a way, for her mental state, because this is a story about mental states. It’s about suffering a deep, deep loss, and how this new loss brings back a similarly deep past loss that has remained unresolved.
But now, I don’t want to give away this loss, though perhaps if you’ve heard of the book you already know. The story is told chronologically but, interspersed with this main narrative which chronicles around 6 months in the couple’s lives, are flashbacks in which Heather remembers life with her mentally ill mother Shelley, with her father and her older sister Fleur, and with her Gran. It was clearly a loving family but one under immense stress which each member handled in slightly different ways. As the contemporary story exposes Heather’s increasingly unstable state, we are also inexorably led to the tragedy that occurred in Heather’s teenage life. The resolution has a certain predictability to it, but Spargo-Ryan builds it so well that it doesn’t feel clichéd.
One of the pleasures in reading this sad but ultimately hopeful book lies in the characters around Heather. Her sister and father, and elderly neighbours Sylvia and Ashok, in particular, are colourful but human, and they create a warm, engaging but not sickly-sweet community which tries to shore up Heather. There’s husband Dave too, but he is a little more shadowy, off working as a teacher during the day when much of the action takes place.
The story is told first person by Heather, and as her mental state worsens we find ourselves a little destabilised, uncertain about what is real and what isn’t. She’s reliable only in the sense that she’s telling us what she is seeing and believing, but what she sees and believes is not always “real”. This is where the garden becomes significant. Initially the focus of her dreams for her little family, it becomes escape and refuge:
I threw myself from the bed and into the air. Nightlife moved in silhouette and shadow: the broad wings of a fruit bat against the sky, the low call of the boobook owl that always spoke in couplets – mopoke, mopoke. In the garden the pittosporums stood to attention and the moon pooled at their feet.
Shhh, said my body, folding around me.
But gradually it enables her imagination to run amok – and it plays an important role in the resolution.
The book is beautifully produced – creatively presenting text and white space to mirror and convey the disarray of Heather’s mind. However, what I most liked about it is the way it conveys the impact of mental illness on family members, the way it explores how family members, neighbours and friends can work together to nurture an ill person, and, importantly, the way it shows how carers can get lost in the focus on the ill person. It’s all done through language that shines and shows, rather than didactically tells and exhorts. By the end I had real tears in my eyes, and that doesn’t happen often.
(Review copy courtesy Picador Australia)