The Children’s House
(Penguin Random House)
It’s such a pleasure to introduce Perth author Alice Nelson talking about her second novel and one of my favourite reads of 2018. The Children’s House, released last October, was longlisted for the 2019 Indie Awards and has been described by Better Reading as ‘spellbinding storytelling at its best and purest’ .
Alice’s first novel, The Last Sky—another favourite of mine (I featured it in this post)—was shortlisted for The Australian/Vogel’s Literary Award, won the T.A.G. Hungerford Award and was shortlisted for the Australian Society of Authors’ Barbara Jefferis Award, and Alice was named Best Young Australian Novelist of 2009 in the Sydney Morning Herald’s national awards program. Her short fiction, essays and reviews have appeared in publications such as The Sydney Review of Books, The Asia Literary Review, Southerly, the West Australian Newspaper and the Australian Book Review.
The blurb for The Children’s House reads:
The Children’s House explores the traumas that divide families and the love and hope that creates them.
Marina Hirsch is a young professor teaching at Columbia, made famous by a book on the Romani people. In her small academic circle, she is known as ‘the Gypsy scholar’, a chronicler of hermetic communities.
Recently moved into a Harlem brownstone with her psychoanalyst husband, one hot summer day she witnesses a Rwandan refugee woman—Constance—leave her tiny son in the middle of the sidewalk. Scooping the boy up, Marina hurries to his mother and hands him back. The year is 1997, three years after the Rwandan genocide.
As the summer progresses, the two women form a tentative relationship, but soon Marina’s fierce attachment to the young boy and the dark opacity of Constance’s past threaten to test the boundaries of love, motherhood and power.
If you haven’t already read The Children’s House, I feel sure you will want to after reading this beautiful guest post by Alice…
2 things that inspired The Children’s House
There’s a line in a novel by Anne Michaels that seemed to me to so beautifully summarise the complex terrain that I wanted to explore in The Children’s House. Michaels writes:
‘There is nothing a man will not do to another. But there’s also nothing a man will not do for another.’
My novel ventures into some difficult territory and while it is about some of the terrible things humans are capable of, I also wanted to explore acts of grace and empathy; the profound echoes that compassion and generosity can have. I wanted to write about consolation and restoration as well as loss and exile, and Michaels’ beautiful lines were a reminder for me of the ways that kindness and goodwill can be incredibly potent forces in an individual life and in a community, and acted as an encouragement for me to write a novel that was about the co-existence of acts of horror and acts of compassion.
Another literary gift that inspired me to continue writing this often unwieldy and difficult novel over many years was listening to the Irish writer Anne Enright talk about the way that the work of writing a novel is also a process of educating the heart, and that we have to become equal to the books we wish to write. I write very slowly and painstakingly and this particular novel took several years to write, so hearing Enright’s words of encouragement gave me faith that the work I was doing was a way for me to spend a sustained period of time dwelling with some of the questions and preoccupations that haunt me; questions about memory, loss, inheritance and the possibilities of restoration and solace.
2 places that inspired The Children’s House
One of the interesting things about the writing of The Children’s House was the way that particular houses exerted such a profound influence on the story, even to the point of altering the narrative arc. There is the brownstone in Harlem where the novel is set, which is actually the house that I lived in during my years in New York. I never consciously planned that the characters in the novel would live in that brownstone, but it was a place that I was enormously attached to for a long time and as the novel took shape, it seemed to be the natural home for my characters. Towards the end of the writing process, I actually went back and stayed in the New York brownstone for three months. It was a somewhat surreal experience because I felt like I had been transplanted into the world of my novel and I kept expecting that I might glimpse one of my characters disappearing around a corner ahead of me, but it was also incredibly useful in making sure that the texture of Harlem was authentic, that I had got it right.
The section of the book that is set in Cape Cod came about because I spent a winter there writing in a little cottage above the dunes in Truro. It was a very cold, bitter winter and all of the nearby houses had been shut up for the season. The insufficient midwinter light, the windswept beach and the isolation made a deep impression on me and it was during that time that I wrote the sections about my central character Marina travelling to Cape Cod to try and uncover the mystery of her mother’s disappearance many years earlier. That winter house above the dunes became Marina’s mother’s house, and the section of the book set there turned out to be very important to the narrative trajectory.
2 influences that helped me to solve particular problems in the novel
The Children’s House is a complex novel and my challenge in writing it was to find a way in which echoes, patterns and symmetries could be brought together to form a coherent whole. It’s also a novel that slips in and out of the consciousness of different characters and contains several voices. I play the piano and I was working through Bach’s Preludes and Fugues when I was writing the novel, and at one point I realised that what I was trying to create was almost a literary version of a fugue, where there is a main theme and then several voices in contrapuntal motion. The form can be quite intricate and very complicated technically, with three or four voices interweaving, but Bach is masterful in creating the most harmonious wholes, these glorious polyphonic pieces. So conceiving of the structural problems I was having in these musical metaphors was very helpful and gave me a new way to look at what was happening on the page.
Another influence on the novel was my extensive reading of psychoanalytic literature, and in particular, a paper called ‘Ghosts in the Nursery: A Psychoanalytic Approach to the Problems of Impaired Infant–Mother Relationships’. The Children’s House is very much concerned with the ways that we inherit the unresolved lives of our parents, and the different ways that our psyches are shadowed by history—both personal and collective—so my deepening understandings of psychoanalytic theory were immensely helpful.