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Sunday, March 17, 2013

Review: "What We Know about the Lost Families of ____ House" from Before and Afterlives

"What We Know about the Lost Families of ____ House" from Before and Afterlives  (originally in Interfictions)
Christopher Barzak 
Paperback: 320 pages  
Publisher: Lethe Press (March 18, 2013)  
ISBN-10: 1590213696 ISBN-13: 978-1590213698
Rose Addleson is the house's latest victim.  She spoke in tongues at church a child, using what the people say in Jesus' voice.  After her car stalled, she needed a phone, so she stopped by the ____ House.  The House says it needs her, so she marries its owner, Jonas.  She cleans up buttons continually since  a former owner used to own a button factory.  She had one child who died at age one on a cold winter's night.

The first owners people remember were the Blanks.  The first son disappeared into the orchard, the father died, and their last son disappeared, leaving just the mother.  Next came the Olivers whose parents were murdered by their son who had gambling debts and who held his brother and sister hostage.  At first the town is generous helping the kids find work, but when the sister has a child, the town shuns them until they're forced to leave.

The next owners were the Addlesons, Jonas' grandparents, who arrived during WWII while the men were gone.  The button factory owner, James, however, had gotten various factory girls pregnant, killed them, and buried them in various locations.  The community wanted to intervene then--"if it is not the business of one’s community, whose business is it?"  But the mother needed a place to raise her children, but then Jonas' father killed himself when Jonas was ten.

Finally, the community chooses to act:

"We thought we were doing best by them, leaving them to their own choices, trying not to interfere with the lives of others. But we saw how wrong we were when — House took our Rose, when it took our Rose’s little girl....   
It was then we decided to take action. Not one more of our children would we let that house ravage."

The story treats in a literal way how places shape us and how we may or may not have the power to change that--how places remind us the history of those shapes, long after they occurred.  This sets the metronome for how we interpret the collection's title.

This is an ambitious story.  The viewpoint--famously executed by William Faulkner in "A Rose for Emily"--is tough to pull off as it encompasses the attitude of a town in the first person-plural.  In Faulkner's we see a town reacting to an elderly woman.  Here again the town takes ownership, but perhaps it takes a more active moral role.

The story also plays with time and dramatic continuity (it starts in the present, backs up a little, then goes as far back as its residents can remember, switching up characters and story lines along the way.) and with reliability:
"If anyone is curious [about who first built the house], of course there is the library with town records ready to be opened. No one has opened those records in over fifty years, though. Oral history, gossip, is best for this sort of situation."
That this opens the anthology suggests that the author and/or editor hold it in high regard, or perhaps this story sets the tone for others to come.  It is without doubt interesting with intellectual challenges (I read it three times) although it is surprising that they would challenge readers so quickly instead opening with a more traditional narrative, such as "The Language of Moths":  Lure them in, then toy with readers.  Perhaps they wanted readers aware of the kinds of pleasures Barzak offers.

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