Maggie is in her fifties and lives alone, except for her dog, Buster. She's returning from a walking holiday when she catches the eye of a terrified girl in the airport toilets; the resulting sequence of events leads to her being lauded as a hero for rescuing the girl, Anja, from a trafficking ring. After she agrees to a meeting, Maggie finds Anja insinuating herself into her life and her home.
You might think you know where this is going: a lonely woman, starved of company; an unreliable first-person narrative; a charming, manipulative stranger who seems like the victim until it's too late. And in some ways, this story does bear the hallmarks of its antecedents - In My House is reminiscent of Zoë Heller's Notes on a Scandal and Harriet Lane's books. However, it surprised me - and exceeded my expectations - by transforming into an elegant and thoughtful character study, with a subtle undercurrent of tension, going beyond a resurrection of character stereotypes already done perfectly in other books. In the end, I felt it more closely resembled Samantha Harvey's underrated Dear Thief.
Maggie is not one of those fictional women whose loneliness is fuel for jealousy and avarice, despite the impression that's knowingly created by the opening scenes of her holidaying alone and returning to an empty house. She's neither alone nor lonely - there's a tight-knit group of friends and, it turns out, a daughter. It's clear Maggie has something to hide, clear her budding relationship with Anja has some greater significance, but the natures of these things are evasive. Her reasons for buying every newspaper, scouring them for mentions of Anja's escape and her own involvement, are unclear at first - it's not immediately evident whether she is simply obsessed by her own small representation in the media or afraid that the attention may bring something else to light. Later, she's horrified by the idea of photographs of her being tagged on Facebook. One might be drawn back to her early statement that she was 'never one for photos'. Why would she not want to be spotted by a member of her own family, as seems to be the case when she journeys to Brighton with Anja? What sense can any of this make when she is content to socialise with her friends and holiday with groups of strangers? Maggie's relationship with her daughter is another mystery - it is clearly strained, but they are not estranged from one another; so surely (we think) nothing that bad can have happened? These details keep you glued to the book and yet seem to preclude any major revelations, which I found refreshing. In My House deals not with extravagant twists, but a slow drip-feed of information.
One of the triumphs of In My House is Maggie's narration: in every aspect, it reflects the character. Ordinary, but a cut above banal; restrained, but a little romantic; plain language with an edge. Here she is describing a walk in the park:
A group of uniformed children waited at the entrance, their cries like birds. Clouds rushed us, and the wind picked up a handful of crisped leaves and threw them at the dogs. The beginnings of autumn, though we were not there yet.Recalling the response to a poem recital in her teenage years:
An eddy of applause and then a sharp throaty sound from a single spiteful girl. A silence began, a contagious sort of silence; a ripple of embarrassment that spread like blown sand, in shuffle and glare.Remembering her mother:
Hands gripping her skirts, eyes on fire, transported. She was articulate in her fury; a glamour to her - her only glamour. Never more compelling than in the arms of a rage.Her ablutions end with 'the bath blood cool, water sheeting off me'. Buses emit 'long queeny gasps'. Cautiously elegant, self-consciously refined, with something clipped, measured, and restrained about it - Maggie's voice elevates her above those around her, and yet occasionally shows her up as more judgemental than she'd like anyone to believe. Another strength of Hourston's style is the dialogue - 'And Jan? She. They got on?' 'Sorry. I've just got to. Sorry. You go' - with its halting, authentic rendering of speech.
There are no plainly disturbing moments here, more odd turns of phrase and small motifs that make themselves known by repetition. Maggie's references to Anja evoke the language of lovers as often as they do a mother-daughter sort of relationship. The two of them simultaneously saying the same thing 'turned my mind to lovers, and perhaps hers too'; after Anja sleeps at Maggie's house, they sense the aftermath of 'some sexless one-night stand'. But Maggie often wants to either protect Anja or tell her off, baffled at her hallmarks of youth - texting, revealing clothes, a bad tattoo. By placing Maggie's attitude towards Anja partway between motherly and covetous, Hourston makes their relationship all the more disconcerting. There's a scene in which Maggie brushes Anja's hair that was like nails down a blackboard for me, such was the pitch of its weird, familial/carnal vibe. Maggie refers continually to memories of her own mother in this scene, but it is also the culmination of any sexual charge in the book.
This was so nearly a 10/10 book. (When I got to the middle, I was so rapt that I really considered going back to the beginning and read it over again, more carefully - but in the end, my need to know what happened next won out instead.) I loved Maggie's character and the economical unfurling of the truth. My rating was dragged down slightly by a bit of unevenness and some details I didn't feel were resolved satisfactorily, and I would have preferred certain things about Maggie's background to be a little less predictable.
When Maggie says: 'it's hard, this business of being with others', she might be summing up the whole story. In My House is a book about the difficulties inherent in relating to other people, the conflict between different types of feelings and motivations, the instability of family relationships: alongside Maggie's story about getting to know Anja, there runs the tale of her own past, providing a mostly fascinating contrast to her present-day life. When a line from Anja near the end throws Maggie's whole account into question, it almost seems like an aside - Maggie's possible unreliability has become secondary to the specifics and the small observations of her story, her life. She's a character who will stay with me for a long time.
I received an advance review copy of In My House from the publisher through NetGalley.
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