I really enjoyed House of Sticks. It’s about a mother who has put aside her music career to look after her three children. She has a husband, Pete, who is a fairly equal partner in the domestic running of things, and he is a solid and loving presence. It was refreshing to see a male character who was a good guy. The reader essentially looks through a window, watching as Bonnie and Pete move through the days dealing with all the issues and complaints and joys that are inherent in a family with young children. This could be boring, this litany of small-world stuff — and it could be unbearable to the reader as well, because Hell is other people’s children, right? Reading about the sniveling and whining and jumping on beds could be exasperating.
Not so. Very quickly, I cared about Bonnie and very quickly I was intrigued by her husband Pete’s work assistant (and old friend) Doug — his seemingly friendly yet slightly sinister presence invading their house physically and psychologically. Doug sits at their table blithely eating breakfast, making comments that provoke Bonnie. He seems ignorant of her increasing discomfort and annoyance and what makes it worse is Pete wants to support him because Doug is struggling and also needs his help with a big work project. Bonnie continues on and lets things ride and tension builds slowly and beautifully until you as reader and Bonnie as protagonist are almost spinning in place with ‘what the fuck is coming? It’s something bad I can feel it.’ It is admirable that Frew resists (if it was ever a consideration) some disaster to do with one of the children. If there’d been an accident it would have been a cheap trick so I was very happy that she didn’t go there.
When Bonnie goes to Sydney for a gig towards the end of the novel, the pace picks up and things unravel very quickly in the space of a couple of days. It was at this point that I found things veered into the slightly predictable* and I confess I was disappointed with a couple of plot turns, but only in a small way. I was pleasantly surprised when Doug re-entered the narrative and was glad at Frew’s handling of that scene.
Essentially, this book is about the loss of self — or the putting on hold of oneself, something that I imagine many women find themselves doing when they have a young family. Often there is just no space for anything else amongst the exhaustion of young children, the daily routine, the scraping out of bowls cemented with cereal and the wiping up of spilled drinks and runny noses. The person you were, and all the associated delights and pastimes, can get pushed to the side. Of course, there are new delights, new activities and the joy of having a child can surpass all but, but eventually you have to come back to yourself, and if you are a creative person, it’s that coming back, the relocating of yourself, that can seem insurmountable. For Bonnie, this re-locating of self is smooth as she is in demand by an established musician and she gets lots of invitations to play in gigs; this return is handed to her on a plate, as it were, this is not where the struggle lies. The struggle is in having to work out the child care, something any mother knows about. While prosaic, I wonder how often the juggling of ‘who will look after the children’ means that real opportunities are lost — I know in my case it meant withdrawing from a prestigious, hard-won, difficult-to-get-entry to writing course at RMIT back in 2000 when I decided it was time to give writing a serious go. Did I resent having to withdraw? Honestly, I did not. But did it happen because I had no one to look after my young child? Oh yes. The timing just wasn’t right.
To me, a sign that a book is more than just adequate or ‘okay’ is if I think about it when I’m not reading it. As if the characters are in existence and their story is playing out even while I’m not there to watch. It’s delicious when I find myself thinking about the story during the day when I could not read, and looked forward to being able to pick it up again. I look forward also to Frew’s next book because she writes like a dream, can tell a story and isn’t scared of being different in what she chooses to write about. I like that.
* in addition to the clichéd difficult relationship between Bonnie and her mother. I have written about a similar relationship and I feel I am always reading about strained mother-daughter relationships; the remote, withholding mothers and their resentful, sensitive daughters. There don’t seem to be many positive examples of lovely mothers around…