Elizabeth Gentry’s Housebound crystallizes a moment of irrevocable change within a family. When Housebound opens, Maggie, the eldest daughter in a large, sheltered family, decides to leave her family home to search for work in the city:
Leaving home felt like tunneling out of a snow that had kept everyone housebound so long they had run out of things to talk about. There were no more anecdotes, poetry recitations, ghost stories, contrived games, or late-night disclosures before the wood stove. Rather than building their knowledge of one another in successive cycles of irritation and love, memorizing each new layer as they aged and grew, the eleven members of the family had simply succumbed, once and for all, to a silence that turned them into strangers. They forgot the pressing revelations. They forgot that short surprised laugh. They forgot, too, the ring of the telephone against the wall, connecting them to people they might no longer recognize.
While set on this course, she equally believes that she won’t leave. She manages to see both of these paths as her certain eventuality, and it is this double vision—both saying goodbye to her hometown and considering it with new eyes, as a place she might be bound to in ways she doesn’t fully comprehend—that lend the book its magical liminality, and remind us that the most fascinating liminal states understand the importance of holding contradictory things with extraordinary care.
Housebound is a fairytale. In Kate Bernheimer’s foreword, she wrote “To utilize fairy-tale techniques (and there are dozens, including paradox, riddle, displacement, symmetry, lack—all wonderfully explicated by scholar Max Lüthi and at work in my evolving theory of “the fairy way of reading”) is to change the meaning of meaning.” This seemed an invitation to explore Max Luthi’s work, so after I read Housebound for a second time, I read The Fairytale as an Art Form and Portrait of Man.
Not far into the book it became obvious that Bernheimer was right, Gentry had made creative usage of many fairy-tale techniques, and none were as powerful for me as the way Gentry used objects in her narrative.
Lüthi talks about how objects function in a fairy-tale narrative:
The fairytale is a story about people. Objects and nature never occur in the fairytale for their own sake. Objects stand in relationship to figures, mortal or otherworldly.
This is to say that Gentry’s writing is economical in fairytale way. Objects are there because the characters need them, and their necessity to the narrative arc bestows upon them a magical quality. Some objects, as discussed by Lüthi, are so beautiful as to be blinding for the characters. Other objects were gifts; one neighbor gave Maggie a cupcake, another loaned a cat because there was a rat in the family home.
These favors caused Maggie to consider the obligations that accepting these favors created. There was so much going on around her, but this was her most persistent worry, because this was a book about the ivy-creeping of familial ties.
Housebound is also about a house. The house has cracks that let in mold and vermin, rooms that are hidden in plain sight, and paper-thin walls that inform each family member of the movements of the others. It has the power to tether its inhabitants, suggest boundaries that are no less firm for their invisibility, and keep the outside world out.
This house allows the characters to demonstrate the power of action: how one action instills power within the agent, the power to act in the future, with a changing knowledge as an unfaithful resource. The house, as an object, changes to satisfy the needs, desires and expectations of its inhabitants. Its rooms can be repurposed for unforeseen challenges.
This book slowly reveals secrets through objects and the power the characters allow those objects, details the rules that must be maintained to protect the secrets, and demonstrates the weight rules put on familial bonds, like an unbelievable snow pile-up keeping the front door shut.
Housebound contains death, but this is not its primary interest. This book obsesses over the miniature deaths we suffer ad nauseam, reminds us that we are constantly in a process of becoming unrecognizable to all of our former selves, as is everyone around us. For these deaths, there is honest grieving and a reminder that we remain accountable to every version we contain.
Housebound, by Elizabeth Gentry. Lake Forest, Illinois: Lake Forest College Press. 160 pages. $15.00, paper.
Louise Henrich has been published by Blood Lotus, FortyOunceBachelors, andDanse Macabre. You can follow her Twitter handle, @louisehenrich.