BOOK REVIEW: The Household Spirit

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Household Spirit by Tod Wodicka, out on 4 June from Jonathan Cape, £16.99 hardback

In adjacent houses on a deserted stretch of highway linking the suburban towns of upstate New York, live two families. While isolation might have drawn some people closer, they studiously ignore one another for decades. Children are born and grow up, a marriage fails, death thins their numbers, yet they exchange little more than perfunctory nods of recognition. Relations are so formal that, when necessity impels them to interact, rather than cut across adjoining lawns they walk down one drive, turn 90 degrees, and then walk up the neighbouring drive. (It’s a lovely visual detail, and an immediate signal that here’s a writer with an eye.)

Howie lives in one of the houses, alone since the end of his marriage twenty years earlier.  He remains on good terms with his ex and her partner, while relations with daughter Harriet are cordial but remote. Howie reminds me of an Ann Tyler hero, a kind-hearted plodder eking out a quotidian existence short on excitement but emotionally insulated and safe from upsets. The biggest blight on his life is a face whose woeful demeanour prompts everyone to ask, “What’s wrong?” It was, his ex wife said, “The last face on earth.” It’s a face to frighten babies and pets, and Howie tries his best to keep it in check, but really, there’s nothing he can do about it.

Next door lives Emily, who’s interrupted her university education in Boston to care for her dying grandfather, who brought her up. As a child Emily suffered from night terrors. Now she’s plagued by sleep paralysis and resists going to bed at all, which leads to every more eccentric behaviour.

Soon events cause Emily and Howie, individually, to look across the divide and think: something’s wrong next door. This plunges us into the true story and theme of Wodicka’s novel, community and connection. Howie probably speaks for the author when he thinks, “You take care of your own.”

A quick digression. If you don’t know about sleep paralysis, here is a link to Wodica’s essay on the subject, as broadcast on the BBC: http://www.goodreads.com/author/show/642905.Tod_Wodicka/blog/tag/sleep-paralysis. It’s a better explanation than I could give, though as it happens, I have experienced this phenomenon as well, and can attest that it’s deeply disturbing and insanely frightening.

Told from alternating perspectives, The Household Spirit is a charming book, filled with characters who are recognisably human and flawed, but also good to the core. As a result, you wind up rooting for them, hoping that things will turn out well by the story’s end.

Wodicka understands the human heart, and gives Howie most of the best of these insights. When signing his divorce papers, he decides to include his “neglected” middle name, “for those three extra marital seconds.” He keeps a hideous chandelier because: “Everyone needs something in his life that he can safely despise.” He refers to one woman’s facial piercings as “[a] jumbled grammar of egregious self-expression.”

If Howie is instantly likeable, Emily takes more getting used to, because she can be prickly and stand-offish, though we discover that she’s only wrapping herself in cotton wool because sleep deprivation has exposed every nerve ending, leaving her raw and fragile. As well, she was an only child, raised in solitude, largely by her grandfather, so she’s out of synch with her peers.

And it seems that Howie, for all his idiosyncrasies, is well liked by his colleagues, who’d love to know him better if he’d only open that door. But he doesn’t, not for the longest time, blithely unaware that they’re massed on the far side to show him a good time. Then when Emily is left homeless after a fire, Howie invites her inside, and she begins schooling him in normal, well-socialised behaviour. Later, when his natural daughter, Harriet, unveils a dark secret, we see just how much of a team they’ve become when it’s left to Emily and Howie to play avenging angels and come to Harriet’s rescue.

Like so many of the best stories, The Household Spirit’s subject is love in all its manifestations. It’s also about the quiet heroism too often overlooked in everyday life. Slaying dragons makes for showy copy, but it takes an adroit writer to portray something equally vivid and memorable on the smaller domestic canvas. Tod Wodicka is certainly that, and his novel should be a crowd-pleaser.

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