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In other rooms, other wonders

The architect Frank Lloyd Wright, in an essay in Modern Architecture, once described the house as a “complicated, clumsy, fussy, mechanical counterfeit of the human body”. The metaphor encompasses the entirety of the house — electrical wires are stand-ins for our nervous system, the rooms “consume” as our stomachs do, and windows look out onto the world like our eyes. The house is where most of the living goes on — it sees lives come and go, a variety of experiences taking place across time in the same rooms.

Shirley Jackson created one of the most famous literary houses of all time in her horror novel The Haunting Of Hill House — an imposing, unfathomable house that may or may not be driving its inhabitants to insanity. But Jackson’s obsession with houses extended well beyond the horror genre, and in fact, influenced much of her real life. Her memoirs Life Among The Savages and Raising Demons are laugh-out-loud recollections of her experience raising her children in 1950s America. Strikingly, they’re also stories of the houses that her family moved to and from. Life Among The Savages opens with the line “Our house is old, and noisy, and full”, and across the length of the book we learn of how it only gets older and noisier and fuller. Jackson battles the whims of landlords and interfering neighbours, comes up against rooms in the house where items mysteriously vanish, and navigates the needs of her four chaotic children and her husband — all while writing her own novels. Jackson’s writing is a testament to the many, many ways that the house can inhabit a character of its own, whether as a space of spooky madness, or a madness of the more ordinary, domestic kind.

House of Shadows, written by Diane Meur and translated from the French by Teresa Lavender Fagan, is an expansive historical novel set in the 1800s, in an ancestral house in Poland, and narrated by the house itself. The house stands tall and proud as generation after generation of people come and go. There’s an interesting narrative technique at play — the house, centuries old and decidedly inhuman, is not bound by time; as a result, its recollections are not linear, and it tells its stories through digressions and connections.

And because this is wartime, the house’s story is often necessarily the story of women — while the men go out to fight or gamble or trade, it is the women who actually stay within the rooms, whether by choice, compulsion, or necessity. We hear the history of Eastern Europe as the house witnesses it, but we also see a smaller, more personal history, as different characters through time come into contact with the same items, in the same rooms, in the same house.

The ideas of “house” and “home” are often used synonymously, but they are not so — one is a physical space, and one is often just a feeling. They can overlap, of course. They do so in Sonal Kohli’s The House Next to the Factory, a collection of interlinked short stories set from the 1980s to the present, telling the story of one house and a constellation of characters that come into contact with it. We meet tutors and childhood friends, cousins and aunts, businessmen and domestic help. In a quiet and intimate way, we are introduced to this multitude of characters and their different ambitions and opportunities, and the space that connects them all: the house next to the factory. In this novel, houses are ever-changing, and home is an elusive concept characters strive towards.

In these novels, houses are the perfect canvases to explore so many ideas — personal and political histories, spaces of domesticity, as well as spaces of horror. The house can be an oppressive structure, as it is in The Haunting Of Hill House and in House Of Shadows. It can be a symbol of status. It can be haunted by things other than ghosts — it can hold remnants of the past in its rooms, a constant reminder that something has lived here before, and something will probably live hereafter.

The author is a writer and illustrator. She likes stories with ambiguous endings and unreliable narrators.

Piqued is a monthly column in which the staff of Champaca Bookstore bring us unheard voices and stories from their shelves.

(Published 14 October 2023, 22:54 IST)

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