In My Father’s House by Jane Mundy uses an unusual scenario to lure the reader in: it’s about a woman who’s a hoarder and she gets in one of those clutter-buster types to help her sort out the mess in the house so that it can be sold. This process enables the characters to retrieve memories long suppressed and to sort out what it is that they really value.
The last time I read a book in a similar vein was Homer and Langley by E.L. Doctorow and that ended very badly indeed because they didn’t have a clutter-buster! In this novel, however, the author shows not only how necessary it is to shed the hoard, but also how hard it is. Martha the clutter-buster proclaims her three rules of thumb: ‘do you use whatever it is;? do you need it? does it have any sentimental value? but her method also includes starting in the kitchen where there are fewer items likely to cause angst, and also lots of talk, asking about Beth’s future plans. Still, she gets it badly wrong when she is about to toss a wok into the pile of discards, not realising that this particular wok has memories that go back a lifetime.
Beth was a young adult when the Vietnam War started tearing Australian families apart. Her father, who for his own hidden reasons is dogmatically supportive of the military, is also implacably against anyone who objects to Australia’s participation in the war. Beth falls in love with a young conscientious objector. This is the kind of scenario that estranged families for decades.
The novel is beautifully constructed so that the jigsaw pieces of Beth’s memories are only gradually revealed. At the same time, her emerging friendship with Martha’s son enables Martha to confront issues in her own life. Her son has warped ideas about what it means to be brave and his desire to prove himself as a soldier in Afghanistan almost breaks her heart.
What also interested me in this novel was the unflattering depiction of the writing life. Beth’s father is a would-be writer, and he tyrannises his family into sharing every single event in their lives so that he can pillage them for inspiration. He demands subservience from all in the service of his art. He brooks no rivals. His sardonic cruelties reminded me of Felix Shaw in Elizabeth Harrower’s The Watch Tower. A horrible man, who made family life a misery.
Letters would often arrive at our house from these magazines, amateur writing groups who’d run story competitions, that sort of thing. They were all for Father. I would collect his mail sometimes and put it on his desk for when he got home from work. I learned that the days these letters arrived were bad days. First there would be the sound of an envelope being ripped open, then a short silence, then the slamming of a fist on the desk or perhaps the crash of an upturned chair. In due course Father would emerge thunderously from the bedroom and Mother and Nigel and I would scuttle from his path like ants from the footsteps of a giant.
Occasionally one of these letters might contain a note from an uncharacteristically kind editor explaining briefly why some piece Father had written had been rejected. Over dinner on such occasions Father would launch a merciless attack on each carefully worded, diplomatic explanation, defending his position and drawing into question the professional expertise and parentage of the editor.
‘Bastard!’ He would spit out the word with such venom that pieces of mashed potato would force their way through his teeth and land on the far side of the table. ‘What does he know about writing? I bet that know-all, would-be literati’s never written a thing in his life.’ (p.56)
The characterisation of Beth’s doormat of a mother (no, no spoilers!) is one of the best surprises in this novel. I was also impressed by the way the author wove current events and recent history together and depicted times that I lived through with faultless authenticity. It doesn’t feel as if it’s ‘been researched’; it feels as if these passions and obsessions have been lived.
This is a terrific book. I look forward to reading more by this author.
Author: Jane Mundy
Title: In My Father’s House
Publisher: Hybrid Publishers, 2014
Source: Review copy courtesy of Hybrid Publishers