Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 1, 2015

The Life of Houses (2015), by Lisa Gorton

The Life of HousesThe Life of Houses, a debut novel by Lisa Gorton, is a quiet, sharply observant short novel.  It centres on the interior world of two characters as they negotiate the demands of family from whom they are estranged.

Anna, a self-made woman with an art gallery, is about to break up her small family.  Her husband Matt has just gone overseas, not knowing about Anna’s affair with Peter and that they plan to be together.  In the interim, in exasperation over the usual teenage disdain, she sends her daughter Kit to stay with her parents from whom she has been estranged for decades.

The house to which Kit travels alone by train is one of those dingy old station homesteads.  It’s been in the family for generations but is in decline – as is the family.  Passing their days there are Anna’s parents, Patrick and Audrey, and her unmarried sister, Treen.  (Such a grating name! It set my teeth on edge every time I saw it!).  Audrey is grotesquely fat and barely able to breathe, but she is an old survivor who will be around to entrap Treen for years to come.  It’s Patrick who takes malicious delight in telling Kit about the resident house ghost, who suffers a sudden heart attack.

It’s also Patrick who casually announces that the house will be Kit’s one day, bypassing any expectations that others might have:

Patrick passed his hand back and forth irritably over the top of his cup, refusing tea.  Treen poured out her own tea and settled back in her chair.  She took up the crossword.  Kit saw that Treen had washed her hands of them both – had claimed for herself the heat-struck, fatalistic peace of the garden.

‘The house will be yours one day,’ Patrick said.  ‘I should show you one or two things.’ He rolled his napkin and fed it into his napkin ring.  Kit, who had not thought to take her own napkin from its ring, rubbed her fingers on a corner of the cloth.  She glanced across at her aunt.  Treen, who had found her spectacles when she went into the house, now held the crossword up to her face.  She was counting letters; she fumbled for the biro she had dropped down the side of the chair. (p. 127)

I’ve read quite a few novels treating the issue of inheritance, but few have skewered so mercilessly as this, the cruelty of old men in using their assets to settle old scores…

The early chapters alternate between Anna’s and Kit’s point of view, but as the novel progresses Anna fades away for a while and the novel focusses on Kit’s self-absorption and her impressions of the situation she finds herself in.  She’s only fifteen, and very preoccupied with exploring the rambling old house and observing the people she meets in the small seaside town.  She is told, often, how much like her mother she is, and has trouble adjusting to this jolt in her identity.  They all ‘know’ her because they know her mother.  They, like the house, have memories and allusions that beset her.  They have opinions about her, her family and the house.  But she knows no one.  She is a blank slate, a canvas yet to be sketched.  But she wants to sketch it herself, independent of these exterior perceptions of who she is or might be.

She meets Scott, a contemporary of her mother’s.  He is vaguely resentful that Anna has moved on but he hasn’t.  There is a slight sense of menace about this man and his interest in Kit which – ironically, considering the way Anna despatched the girl as if she were a mere parcel to a place where she knows no one – provokes a slightly hysterical reaction when Anna eventually arrives in town.

We are not meant to like Anna very much.

It’s not a novel where much happens – it’s not plot-driven and much remains unresolved at the end.  It’s a work which explores feeling.  Through Kit, and through Anna to a lesser extent, The Life of Houses shows how -although we shape ourselves in the context of others – we become conscious of how they interpret us and we need to separate ourselves from those perceptions in order to become an independent self.  The metaphor of the house is used to show how old money and class distinctions – like the napkin ring which was at first invisible to Kit – exert a powerful influence in relationships.  (You can see this also in the Sensational Snippet that I posted previously).

It’s also a novel to linger over.  I was reminded of Patrick White because the writing so often provoked me to reread, to savour observations of people which are precise, economical and unexpectedly savage.  (Shirley Hazzard does this with her prose too.) Treen has stubborn outsized flesh.  Later, packing Treen’s clothes, Kit can’t bring herself to handle the woman’s bra.  Patrick inclines his head in a gesture so courtly, so fastidious, she wondered whether he had bowed.  Peter shows a sort of compassionate chivalry.  Anna, watching him look through her cupboards to find glassware, realises that if she had paid attention to where he looked, she would have known where he and Clare kept their champagne flutes.

If you like this kind of writing too, you will like The Life of Houses very much.

Author: Lisa Gorton
Title: The Life of Houses
Publisher:  Giramondo, 2015
ISBN: 9781922146809
Review copy courtesy of Giramonda


Fishpond: The Life of Houses




  1. Gads, for you to be reminded of Peter White and Shirley Hazard by the same book – the Kindle sample is now waiting – heh – Thanks.


    • I don’t suppose there’s any goss about a new book from Shirley Hazzard? I know she must be very old by now, but I haven’t entirely given up hope of another one…


      • I think she’s 84 now so … still, her works are so fine.


        • Pshaw, 84 is nothing! A friend of mine in her mid eighties has just published her first book so this week and last I’ve been teaching her how to do a blog to publicise it – so she promptly started publishing her vignettes and short stories on it! See
          (and do ‘like’ it, or comment, to encourage her, please:)


  2. Treen really is an annoying name, isn’t it? I also wondered about Treen – whether it was short for Katrina or something? But then Scott mentions that her school friends call her Triny?

    I finished this book earlier today and was glad when I added it to Goodreads to see you’d reviewed it. Great review!


    • Thanks:) I’m relieved I’m not the only one to be irritated by that name.
      But it’s a very small flaw in a very good book, I think. This is one that makes me wonder what she will write next…


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