Book Review: Housebound by Elizabeth Gentry

HouseBoundThis lyrical début novel by Elizabeth Gentry takes the reader through the process of awakening from a spell. When Maggie, the eldest of nine children, decides to leave her country life for a job in the city, she begins a journey into the darkness of her strict and secretive family. She and her siblings have been homeschooled in near isolation, forbidden to eat sugar and forced to experience life largely through books. In the space of a few short days, Maggie will learn to question the norms of her childhood until she can rewrite her family’s narrative.

The outside world, even in small doses, proves to be as seductive as the sugary treats Maggie is offered by her neighbors. Walking through the woods around her family home, Maggie encounters various characters–an overly friendly receptionist, a wise librarian, a grotesque baker lady and her “witch” daughter, wolves and tramps who are ever-present but never seen–who provide clues to her family’s past. Fairy-tale elements flow through this novel in a subtle yet constant undercurrent. Animals play an important role in the narrative, with a biting rat and a lost cat pushing Maggie forward to new discoveries. And the atmosphere of the woods, alternately consoling and frightening, suggests that Maggie’s journey may be endless.

Perception and memory are frequently called into question, and Maggie’s final days at home, as long as they are ruled by lies and silence, often feel like a dream. With the discovery of a secret room, hidden behind a full-length mirror, the family’s reality snaps into painful focus. Memories half-buried suddenly make new sense: we come to understand why only Maggie recalls wearing a mermaid costume one Halloween and how much memory itself relies on collaboration with others. This beautiful novel, filled with perfectly tempered language (“From the other rooms, the children heard sobs crashing like breaking glass against the hard bottom of their dreams”), urges us to question all the sources of what we think we know.

Housebound is a family novel which offers no easy redemption story. As one of Maggie’s neighbors attests: “Everyone wants a mother . . . And so mothers are always to be blamed. But never forgotten. Haunting is our one form of recompense for intolerable heartbreak and suffering.” Still, the reader is left feeling hopeful about the future of this family and the power of stories. As Maggie herself learns before leaving home, when one is faced with the truly horrible, the best tactic is not to retreat into silence, but to speak.