(The following review originally appeared in Rain Taxi Review of Books, Volume 13, No. 2.)
Review by Elizabeth Rollins
With a precise clarity of language that enables nimble psychological shifts, Rebecca Brown’s The Haunted House explores the burden of being the children of our parents, and reveals the ways in which this interaction is hinged to the act of love, every act of love, for the rest of our lives. Originally released in 1986, this first novel deserves the second reading that City Lights has afforded it by restoring it to print.
Metaphor drives the story here, just as it has in many of Brown’s other books, especially The Dogs: A Modern Bestiary (1998), and The Terrible Girls (1992). The Haunted House is a triptych of mythical narratives that explore the love of father, love of mother, and love of self, tracing the ways that a person is marked by these emotional crossings.
In the first section, the narrator, Robin Daley, describes her father as man in flight — literally because he is a pilot, but also because he is a man who flees all but the most dramatic and brief connections with family, which are further blurred by his habitual drinking.
Unable to create a meaningful relationship with him, Robin begins to imagine his awkward and hasty visits as flights they navigate together. Before their last flight, which ends in a fiery, cataclysmic fall, her most intimate discussions with her father are a series of static transmissions that all end in the terse and final “Over and Out. Over and Out.”
Robin describes the aftermath of her parent’s divorce this way:
“My father’s compass spun a thousand times. Cancer fought the Great Bear and the Dipper broke in two. The next day we all reckoned by a different set of marks.” (These marks alter Robin, as she dreams/imagines/invents a variety of outcomes for every family interaction. Brown’s use of these alternative, fluctuating scenes peels down to this truth: In the absence of a father, there is nothing to replace him.
In the second section, it’s the mother who is transfigured. After
Robin leaves to pursue life in Italy, she returns expecting her tender,
ironing, frumpy, long-suffering mother to be waiting. But mom is gone;
she has become Lucia, a movie star, eyes hidden by large black sunglasses.
The love that Robin feels for her mother borders on the erotic, that
particular kind of longing that can be soothed by nothing other than
its object, and Robin’s affection is consistently thwarted.
The push and pull of this fictional guise makes the reading taut with suspense. We don’t know if Lucia is real. We don’t even know, since the narrator has fully moved into the habit of re-envisioning scenes (revising the marks of her history), if the mother has any inclination towards the truth of her past or not. The hints that she might remember her family, and the suffering contained in this memory, are as terrible as the blank black lenses she offers instead of eyes. “‘I’m not your mother,’ her voice declares, as if she hasn’t heard me. ‘ No daughter of mine would ever — ’ She stops and gulps. ‘No son of mine —’ She gasps. ‘I would never marry anyone who’d — ’ She chokes.”
In the final section of this triptych, Robin and her lover Carrie purchase an old house for renovation. Though the house begins to gleam with renewal, the lovers are soon beset by strange noises as the drywall begins to crack and crumble in the night. The house reveals its troubles to Robin when she finds memorabilia from her own childhood hidden in its walls. “For each act of forgetting, there is something that comes back; for every act of memory, a loss.”
Increasingly isolated by fear, Robin and Carrie become estranged. As the house begins to disintegrate and fill with water, Carrie, already outside, shouts for Robin to save herself: “Get out — there’s time — the whole thing’s going down!” This particular language summons Robin’s first fall, the first terrible crash with her father, and leads us to understand that since there was no resolution for Robin with either father or mother, we shouldn’t be surprised when this relationship — this haunted house that is “I” — begins to collapse in earnest.
Aptly titled, Brown’s novel is indeed a ghost story but rather than ghouls, The Haunted House raises the great unknown of parents, and rattles the chains of why they do what they do, why they can’t explain it, why we are never satisfied with their attempts, and why we are so indelibly marked by everything they leave us.
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