Review: The Paper House

A fragile thread

Finally, I’ve finished reading The Paper House by Anna Spargo-Ryan.  It could be the newly diagnosed a-typical asthma, but this novel has winded me. I had to pause while reading it, sometimes for a week, because it was painful, but also because I wanted to dwell in it in a way I haven’t with a novel for a while.

I don’t want to tease apart its beauty or examine too closely the pain it depicts. I just need to say I was made breathless by the heat of it, by its intensity, by emotions unwinding around its characters, by the narrative unspooling through the main character, Heather. It is her story and it resolves for the reader to see the truth of her past and a future too.

For a book steeped in grief, the source of the trauma is immediately apparent, but also slowly peeled away, and hinted at, until eventually it blooms like a midsummer rose  in Heather and Dave’s lovingly depicted garden.

Constantly, I was startled by its familiarity, by its lush imagery and tiny local specifics. It’s location was recognisably Melbourne, even if much of the story and its appeal, could be universal.

A wilder and woollier part of Mornington Peninsula than depicted in the novel.

A wilder & woollier bit of Mornington Peninsula than depicted in the novel.

The certitude of Heather’s perspective, and the language most of all, were impressive and evocative from the very first page and the moment of the inciting incident.

I use ‘inciting incident’ deliberately. For a book about a collection of people, including a visual artist, a teacher, and an oil rig worker, this story feels ‘writerly’. This is not a negative, for a first novel, or in fact any kind of novel, for the writing is controlled, when it could have followed Heather headlong into her mental anguish and gone large on the florid and surreal. What I’m trying so clumsily to express is that this is a book writers can truly appreciate without jealousy.

With some novels I can’t escape the feeling that the author is a cipher, or a committee, or could have been anyone – even me. I don’t get that feeling with The Paper House. This book has the stamp of the particular – that there is an actual human who poured over each detail, who left us breathtaking phrases only to move on with the plot, while I want to wait in the garden just beyond suburban Melbourne and beyond its ubiquitous pittosporums.

Actual pittosporums from an actual garden at a house I once lived in. This was their last sunset.

Actual pittosporums from an actual garden at a house I once lived in. This was their last sunset.

Bit of a spoiler

When I was in a short story class back in the day it was remarkable for how so many students, (myself included), who wrote, straight off, for the first time, without prompting, stories about or inspired by…dead mothers.  My effort was eventually published too. If I knew nothing about the Anna Spargo-Ryan or the narrative, I would’ve only guessed it was a first novel because of the character of Shelley. Maybe Her appearance, is a vestigial trope, a hang over from when many more women died a lot younger, due to complications from childbirth.

Perhaps, though, it is more. Not just aspects of auto/biography, but something about identity, I mean authors asserting themselves as individuals. Maybe it is as Freudian as: for writer to live, the mother must die. There is a thesis in that, if there hasn’t been one already.

This is not a flaw, just one more thing this book made me think about again. It was one of the many things I got to contemplate along with the lyrical expressionism of this very fine achievement by the author.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.