Tuesday, April 14, 2009

A Book I May or May Not Give Away

The House that Wouldn't Go Away by Paul Gallico.

I got this one off the dime rack at the library because I recognized the name Paul Gallico. It's been sitting on the shelves for about a year and I decided to read it during the weekend to see if I wanted to keep it around or not.

It is an odd story, reminding me a bit of the Shyamalan movie "Lady in the Waters", probably for two reasons: because the story takes place in a tenement and because it leaves a lot of loose ends and unresolved notes. Perhaps that's something that comes with the tenement territory.

It also reminded me somewhat of E Nesbit's stories, combining the private lives of British children -- parents present but decidedly in the background -- with elements of magic and mystery.

Three children, the Maitlands, are spending the Easter holidays in the apartment building where they live with their parents. Because it is raining they can't go outside, and so they are forced to find amusement within the tenement walls.

Miranda, who is 11, seems to be able to "see" things that others can't, and she "sees" a house that formerly stood on the grounds where the apartment building stands now. Her brothers Michael and Roddy become interested in the old vanished house -- Michael constructs architectural plans based on her vision and all the children begin to investigate the flats and their inhabitants, trying to match up the flats with the old rooms of the house.

Some of the inhabitants of the building are interested, some think the children are crazy or silly, some are threatened as the childrens' inquiries seem to reveal secrets that they had kept hidden.

The unity of the story seems to be a reflection upon homes and their importance. The Maitland parents, for example, long to have a home of their own. Another couple in the tenement, an old circus act, reminisce about their seven children now grown and the home they made of a travelling caravan. Another time they get to talk to a doctor of psychology, driven to study in a public room because the crying of his newborn son makes it too hard to concentrate in his own rooms, and he tells them about the sociology of homes, how the first primitive men made their homes in caves and tents.

You get the picture. There is a seance that goes wrong, and a discovery of a locked room in the old house where a baby was hidden, but these stories come and go and don't really build up to a unified whole. The writing was good in itself but inconsistent for the purposes of the story.... for example, Mr Maitland is described as a handsome man who "gleams" at his wife for a moment, but as far as his relationship with his childrens' lives goes, he is a cipher. For the bulk of the story I was trying to decide whether it was (1) an early effort by a young talented writer (2) a tired effort by an older talented writer or (3) if somehow it was meant to be scattered, if the form matched the theme of separation within the walls of what was once a family house but was now separate rooms for very separate people leading separate lives.

I think there was a bit of the third. The children in their quest to make the house vivid and alive not just in Miranda's mind but to everyone seem to unite the separate people to some degree under the idea of a "home", whether they are threatened by the idea or glad of it. However, I wasn't surprised, either, to find that this was one of Gallico's last novels, so therefore Theory 2 was correct as well, because the whole thing remained sketchy rather than realized, though nicely done, like hallways that didn't lead anywhere but to walls.

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