The Paper House by Anna Spargo-Ryan was everything I expected and didn’t expect.
What I expected was Spargo-Ryan’s musical sentences – follow her on Twitter and you’ll understand what I mean. She combines the pithy and the insightful in such a way that everything she writes is humorous and heartbreaking and true.
The heartbreaking angle seemed quite fitting for The Paper House,. It’s a story about Heather and Dave, who have just moved into their dream home in a seaside town, and are expecting their first baby. There’s a cot to be built; Heather has plans for the large garden; and Dave has a job at the local school. It all changes in an instant when they lose the baby. What follows is an examination of how people experience grief.
I won’t bore you with the correlation between attachment theory and how we grieve HOWEVER this novel is a stunning fictional example of just that. Spargo-Ryan moves seamlessly between Heather’s past and present – her experience as a child living with a mentally unstable mother reverberates in her grieving for her baby.
Spargo-Ryan’s descriptions are vivid but never overdone –
My heart fell out on a spring morning – the kind that rose coolly in the east and set brightly in the west.
Everything in the desert was red; not deep like cherries, or bright light Ferraris, but fluid and changeable. Overhead, the whir of one-person planes. Below, the ancient earth grumbled.
Gran’s voice is shaking like she’s lost something precious.
What I didn’t expect was an element of magic realism. To be honest, it’s not my thing but I simply had to trust that Spargo-Ryan had chosen magic realism to progress the plot in a particular way – it works and when the story is pulled into sharp focus toward the end, you can see how the magical elements provid texture and contrast between the present and ‘immediate present’ scenes.
Although this story is not exclusively about grief (there’s lots about family relationships to think about), Spargo-Ryan’s descriptions of the loss of the baby are sensitive and devastating.
In the morning he filled forms with unspeakable labels. CAUSE OF DEATH.
‘Make an appointment with your GP six weeks from now. If you feel sick, or feverish, go sooner.’
‘What if I just feel so sad that my legs won’t move?’ I said.
For five days we sent our bodies into the world without us.
She pinpoints the bodily feeling of grief –
I could hear the panic churning in his bone marrow.
‘Okay,’ I said, and he kissed my forehead. I felt it right in my heart, which no longer beat in my chest but hung weighted in the pit of my guts, as heavy and still as a stone amid the hum of the machines and the shrill ring of the bedside phone…
And she captures that strange experience of time during periods of shock (that it speeds by and grinds slowly, all at once).
We walked for a hundred years. I listened to the people in the wards, at the beginnings of their lives and the endings of their lives and the parts of their lives that don’t have time attributions.
When night had slipped away the hospital moved around us. Women arrived with their fat bellies and left with their frog-legged babies and the currency was yellow lilies and bursts of sunflowers and glittering foil balloons from the gift shop.
4/5 As lovely as I had anticipated.
The air in the sunroom was hot and still. The 10am sangria made perfect sense.