Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 3, 2022

Other Houses, by Paddy O’Reilly (and a shout-out to the social novel from Jane Caro)

I’ve been listening to sessions from Adelaide Writers Week and amongst a feast of other discussions, the one with Jane Caro and Debra Oswald chaired by Collette Snowden, was particularly interesting.  This was partly because their current novels The Mother and The Family Doctor (see Kim’s review at Reading Matters) deal with the problem I had with Robert Lukins’ Loveland i.e. the female protagonists violently take matters into their own hands when confronted by coercive control.  (I’ve written a postscript on my review of Loveland because this is not the place for it here.)

However, Jane Caro also articulated her view that social novels deal with issues of importance in ways that non-fiction can’t.  She talked about the Victorian social novel, which ‘takes you out of yourself’ and into the lives of others.  Apart from scholars and researchers, she said, readers don’t read Victorian non-fiction about the social problems of the day.  But we do still read Dickens.

Bethan Carney in a book review at Oxford Bibliographies defines the Victorian social novel…

“Social-problem novels” (also known as “industrial,” “social,” or “condition-of-England” novels) are a group of mid-19th-century fictions concerned with the condition of the working classes in the new industrial age. “The condition of England” was a phrase used by Thomas Carlyle in his essay Chartism (1839) about the “condition and disposition” of working people; it combined sympathy for deprivation with fear of the “madness” of Chartism. Largely written by middle-class writers, the novels highlight poverty, dirt, disease, and industrial abuses such as sweated labour, child workers, and factory accidents; however, they also exhibit anxiety about working-class irreligion and a fear of (potentially violent) collective action, such as Chartism and trade unionism.

Carney gives examples such as Elizabeth Gaskell’s Mary Barton (1848) and North and South (1854–1855); Dickens’s Hard Times (1854) and Oliver Twist (1838); and George Eliot’s Felix Holt, the Radical (1866).  She also mentions Disraeli’s political trilogy Coningsby (1844), Sybil (1845), and Tancred (1847) but I think these probably aren’t much read today, whereas the others are not only still widely read, they have also been made into TV series and films.

Caro suggests that the social novel takes us ‘out of judgement’ and ‘into our hearts’.  We may not approve of how protagonists deal with the dilemmas they confront, but fiction help us to understand their fears, their struggles and what it’s like to live lives like that. This is why I like social novels.

Which brings me to Paddy O’Reilly’s new novel Other Houses...


Paddy O’Reilly is the author of three unforgettable social novels: The Factory (2005); The Fine Colour of Rust (2012); and The Wonders (2014).  Her new novel Other Houses features a couple living payday to payday as they try to transition from a life of poverty and addiction.  Like Eliot Perlman’s Three Dollars (1998) which—when we had no idea how bad it would get—depicted the vulnerability of people in the globalised economy, Paddy O’Reilly’s novel shows how precarious life is for the working poor in the 21st century. Other Houses is the story of Lily and Janks, and Lily’s obnoxious daughter Jewelee, an entitled teenager who is the catalyst for their loss of control over their situation.

When Lily meets Janks, she’s a cashier at a supermarket and he’s an addict.  With a combination of wavering determination and luck, Janks gets a scarce place in rehab. When he’s clean the couple make a fresh start.  They move away from temptation from his ‘mates’, and he gets a dull job in a factory while she does cleaning because the flexible hours mean she can be home for Jewel.  They live from payday to payday, just scraping by but determined that Jewel will have a different sort of life.  They don’t want her to be one of the working poor.  They want her to have a career, and savings instead of debt.

Other Houses is a gritty novel about serious issues, but it’s often playful. O’Reilly has fun depicting the kinds of houses that Lily and her friend Shannon clean, showing the financial and social gulf between those who are cleaners and those who can afford them.

Number 63 is a two-storey terrace, renovated, with four bedrooms, three bathrooms, a formal lounge, large living area combined with kitchen and dining, and a laundry and sun porch leading to the garden.

We hate this house because of chrome.  Chrome and leather furniture, chrome handrails on the stairs, chrome kitchen stools, chrome and glass coffee table, side table, nest of occasional tables.  Two small children whose splayed sticky handprints can be found even on the underside of the chrome frames of the chairs.  Some tiny handprints are identifiably oatmeal, some butter, some we suspect are dried poo.  The metal isn’t properly finished and every fortnight I half-expect to find blood from a sliced finger.  Shannon calls it the House of Hands.  The lady of the House of Hands leaves us two mugs, two teabags and four Aldi shortbread biscuits on her toddler-handprinted kitchen counter like a present for Santa.  It seems she is saying relax, I don’t think of you as my employees, but every few months she sends an email to Hector, our boss, querying the amount of time we take to clean her property.  (p.26)

They also clean the Horror House, the House of Doom, Lady Accountant, the Webber (with spiders), the Special Occasion House and the Portaloo.

The family is on the margins and the rent is a struggle, but now they live in gentrified Northcote. So when Jewelee, who is surely the nastiest teenager ever depicted in fiction, has a school trip to Greece, it triggers a desperate quest for the money to pay for it. Unknown to Lily, Janks borrows the money from #NoSpoilers questionable sources.  And when he can’t pay it back, this gives them a lever to pressure him into doing the sort of job that is a betrayal of their modest ambitions.  He can’t even tell Lily about it.

Narrated alternately by Lily and Janks, the novel focuses mostly on how this invidious choice impacts on Lily.  When bikies are sent round to monster her—and then Jewelee—the house of cards begins to fall.  Lily doesn’t know where Janks is, or how much money he owes or who he owes it to.  But the rent is due, and she doesn’t have Janks’ meagre wages to help pay it, and she loses some work because of an unreasonable client, and no bank will lend it to her.

Trying to edge up into a normal life takes resources that a couple like this just doesn’t have.  The only resource they really have is their love for one another, and no matter what it looks like, Lily knows that Janks hasn’t abandoned her. She needs money to rescue him from his plight and liberate him from wherever he might be. So in desperation, Lily makes a questionable choice as well.

Meanwhile, Janks is on the road to catastrophe…

Highly recommended.

Author: Paddy O’Reilly
Title: Other Lives
Publisher: Affirm Press, 2022
Jacket design by Sandy Cull
ISBN: 9781922626950, hbk., 244 pages
Review copy courtesy of Affirm Press


Responses

  1. I read The Family Doctor last year… it’s excellent…but not sure the revenge aspect of it made me feel anything other than morally compromised and just a bit outraged.

    I will put the O’Reilly on my list. It sounds excellent.

    Like

    • Interesting…
      (I’ll link to your review)
      When vengeance was suggested to Oswald, she said not, that in her book the act is motivated by good intentions, but Jane Caro chuckled and said that she thought readers would indeed wonder if there were elements of revenge in her character’s action.

      Like

      • Thanks. Yes, the character has good intentions and she does a far better job than the police … but, but … I just didn’t feel comfortable with the whole thing.

        Like

        • That’s the point that Jane Caro made… that it’s attitudinal change that’s crucial to deal with this social problem. Her novel is a fantasy.
          She made the point too that she didn’t want to demonise men or the police, who have an impossible job…

          Like

          • Have you read the Caro? I’m waiting for it to appear in the library here… I have been told it is coming soon!

            Like

            • I’ve got it on reserve at the library but they haven’t acquired it yet.

              Liked by 1 person

  2. I love the bit about the Aldi shortbreads! I had a friend years ago who did house cleaning, she routinely found people would leave a five or ten dollar note out somewhere where she was bound to find it as a way of testing her honesty. (She was the most honest person imaginable). I did learn from her to always remember to clean under the kitchen dish drainer though – apparently hardly anyone ever did,

    Like

    • There’s a funny bit where Lily and Shannon think they might write a book, advising people what not to buy because it’s hard to clean…

      Like

  3. Reading Other Houses now and just loving it. Beautiful writing! It began life as a short story “The White Line” which I’ve used in my creative writing teaching as a brilliant example. I’m really happy it has evolved into a novel.

    Like

    • Donna Mazza? As in Donna Mazza who wrote that fiercely intelligent novel Fauna?? Hello, and welcome!!
      I love hearing that it’s a short story that’s niggled its way into a novel, an idea or a character that the author can’t get out of her mind. I find that those novels always work, because the author is as intrigued by the character as the reader is.

      Like

      • Yes, that’s me! Fauna also began as a short story in Westerly called “The Exhibit”. I was very interested to read Other Houses for this reason and can spot the traces of the original short story in it. They are such different forms really so it seems like a bit of a strange approach.

        Like

        • Are you working on something new for me to read?

          Like

          • Yes…just in the early stages though. This one didn’t begin as a short story.

            Like

            • Excellent, a new one in development… that’s what I like to hear!

              Like


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