Monday 21 October 2019

The Children's House - Alice Nelson (2018)

Rating: Admirable

Due to some leave from work it has been a while since I have had to read a novel for the library's book clubs, but the time came and The Children's House turned out to be almost tailor made for book club discussion. The novel features some serious themes; trauma - childhood trauma in particular, and its consequences, refugees, alienation and the healing and nurture that families can provide. The principle protagonist is Marina, an academic and writer whose life is shared with her husband, child psychologist Jacob and his son, Ben. Marina's life changes when it intersects with an African refugee, Constance and her young son, Gabriel. Constance is traumatized by the Rwandan genocides and is obviously incapable of looking after Gabriel. As the novel progresses the characters back-stories unfold, revealing families both torn apart by dysfunction and circumstance, but also united by their need to heal. The Children's House is undoubtedly a novel for our times

Despite its noble intentions The Children's House is a flawed novel, with a ponderous pace that causes reader concentration to flag and disinterest in the characters lives to creep in. Alternate chapters that swing back and forth in time add to the disjunction. There is a great deal of description and very little dialogue, resulting in the authors voice dominating in a way that makes it hard to connect with the characters and their stories. The narrative style is also quite self-conscious, making it obvious that every turn of phrase has been burnished for public consumption. Half way through an unkind thought entered my mind, that the novel was popular fiction masquerading as literary fiction, although this is unfair both to the author and popular fiction itself. However something happened in the last third of the novel that changed my mind, the writing seemed more deftly executed and the emotional undertow of the characters stories began to pay off. I also realised that despite the dominance of the author's voice Nelson had been showing, rather than telling the stories of the characters, and quite subtly too. Ultimately the novel was saved from a mediocre rating with its beautifully effecting denouement, in which the narrative's multiple stands are brought together in a sensitive and emotionally effecting manner. Essentially Alice Nelson has done what every novelist strives to do - win over the (cynical) reader and bring something of worth into their life, and for that I can't help but display a degree of admiration.

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