Life in Ten Houses by Sonya Hartnett is part of the Penguin Specials collection – books that can essentially be read in one sitting. For this reason, I feel a little sneaky including it in my AWW 2013 challenge or as part of my Off the Shelf challenge, although it qualifies for both.
Life in Ten Houses is Hartnett’s ‘memoir of homes’ – her description of the ten houses she’s lived in and how each has had an energy and presence that has pervaded what she was writing at the time. It’s also the story of Hartnett’s search for her elusive ‘Last House’ – the place where she will remain, happy and content.
The concept of the Last House took root when a builder who was doing some work on the first house Hartnett bought said “This won’t be where you’ll live forever.” On reflection, Hartnett says –
“The prediction, when spoken, had been cruelly teasing to one who, only partially employed, felt permanently impoverished and thus trapped where I stood, as the poor often are… Nonetheless, the words would become a mantra of my existence, at least for the following decade.”
I’ll preface this review with two important points. Firstly, I’m a Hartnett devotee. I haven’t read everything she has ever written but at this point, I don’t need to because her novel, Of a Boy, is singularly the saddest story I’ve ever read.
“Of a Boy, that sad horror story into which I poured everything I could remember about overcast Sunday afternoons in 1970s Balwyn.”
Secondly, I read Life in Ten Houses whilst sitting in the yard of the only house that has remained a constant presence in all of my forty-odd years – my grandparent’s beach house on the Mornington Peninsula. It’s a fibro-shack, exactly how a beach house should be. It’s very worn around the edges but deeply loved. None of the crockery matches, the windows rattle and the floorboards creak but the old house has a firm place in my heart. And it won’t be ours forever… So I was perhaps feeling a little sentimental when I opened Hartnett’s memoir.
I particularly enjoyed Life in Ten Houses because it focuses on the suburbs around where I live and grew up. Her descriptions give these suburbs character – they’re rich, observant and to my mind, accurate (although residents of South Yarra may disagree).
“Kew is a handsome suburb of sweeping avenues and venerable mansions, a river, a tram, a hospital, it’s own cemetery, and parkland, which was witnessing, in 1992, the rise of the Lycra-clad cyclist whose speed and aggression is so disconnecting to other users of the environment.”
And of South Yarra –
“This was a suburb, a friend warned me, where you feel guilty if you wore tracksuit pants when you went out to buy the milk – and I have always drunk a lot of milk, and worn a lot of tracksuit pants.”
In her particular way, Hartnett weaves details that will stop you in your tracks with her simple retelling of the stories of her houses – a cat hit by a car, a fleeting reference to a love affair gone sour – she achieves this in language plain and simple and does it like no other author I’ve read.
“A decade later I still feel the shock of it, hear the boom of worlds colliding. My charming visitor was gruesomely killed in such a domestic way – a street, a car, a mistimed dash – and why shouldn’t he have been, for we were surrounded by the suburbs, sunk deep in their embrace; our entire lives had been pinned together by electricity poles, hemmed by nature strips.”
3/5 I struggled with rating this. On the one hand, I wanted more but on the other, my afternoon with Hartnett, in the shade of the trees, was perfect. If Hartnett had lived in Sydney would I have enjoyed it as much? No. It’s all about context. If you’re a Melburnian, read Life in Ten Houses.
Yikes – there are no food references in Life in Ten Houses! So I’m drawing inspiration from my location whilst reading and pairing this book with tasty flathead, a Mornington Peninsula staple. I like flathead cooked simply – a salt and pepper crust or basic beer batter. This recipe for grilled flathead with an avocado lime salsa is perfect.
My copy of Life in Ten Houses was supplied courtesy of Penguin Australia via NetGalley.