This is the real world. We are real people. This is real life. And things sometimes happen that don’t fit in with how we think the story should go, but we just have to take a deep breath and get on with it, not sit there in the corner sulking because it’s not what we were hoping for.
It’s been a long time since I’ve read a novel by Lisa Jewell, about 10 years, I think. Jewell did nothing wrong – I always found her books to be entertaining – but I would’ve stopped reading her around the time that I took against commercial women’s fiction and started reading (mostly) what I deemed to be serious literary works. Thankfully, I’m not quite as boring and pompous as I must’ve been at that time and the broadening of my reading habits seems to have coincided nicely with Jewell delving further into the darkness of human life. And The House We Grew Up In is very dark indeed.
The novel takes a family – the Bird family – mother, Lorelei, father, Colin, eldest daughter, Meg, younger daughter, Beth and twin boys, Rory and Rhys. They live in an idyllic cottage in the Cotswolds called ‘The Bird House’.
The novel begins when Lorelei dies and Meg and her eldest daughter, Molly, arrive at The Bird House to begin clearing it out. This is going to be some task as Lorelei was a hoarder.
For years Meg had lain in bed awake at night, imagining this, picturing it, hearing about it second-hand from social workers and the council: ‘This could be the most extreme case of hoarding we have ever encountered. Her life is at risk, every moment of every day’, listening to her mother on the phone playing it down: ‘Oh, it’s all such a fuss. Such a fuss about a few things. I’m all alone now. I can live how I choose.’
Meg would try to argue: ‘You’ll kill yourself. It’ll bury you. They’ll have to pull the house down to get your body out.’
Jewell treats Lorelei sensitively, showing us the reasons for her hoarding through emails she sends to her internet lover, Jim, and the stories of each member of the Bird family. They are a family who, confronted with a tragedy several years previously, have fallen apart. Each has tried to live their life in a way that has suited them but this has often meant they’ve betrayed/hurt others, often each other.
The novel’s structured so it moves between emails that Lorelei sent to her internet lover Jim before her death; a ‘current day’ narrative looking at the family in the aftermath of Lorelei’s passing, and various flashbacks to incidents that have shaped each of the family members. It’s a structure that works well, keeping you turning the pages, eager to discover the next installment.
My only possible criticism of the book is that it felt as if the family had almost been through too much. When the final revelation came, I wondered if it was a step too far. However, reflecting on the book in the days after I finished it, I started to consider families that I know and the things they’ve been through and I decided that my criticism was unfair; fiction’s supposed to reflect reality and in a family of six, faced with terrible trauma, the reactions of each member would probably lead to darker times in a variety of different ways.
The House We Grew Up In is a page-turner of a family saga and it definitely won’t be ten years before I read a book by Lisa Jewell again.
Thanks to Random House for the review copy.