The Smell of Other People’s Houses- Bonnie-Sue Hitchcock

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Alaska in the 1970s, a typical summer day

Alaska was a lost place in 1970… a location which no one can particularly relate to. Except of course Hitchcock, who grew up there, creating an aura of the authenticity of the poverty and setting. It was time of social revolution, where in this novel the boundaries between child and adulthood are blurred beyond conception.

There are four protagonists Ruth, Dora, Alyce and Hank, with the story being woven between their viewpoints. It creates an intriguing variation for the reader because their lives are revealed through this medium, with the stories being surprisingly knitted together by the closing chapters.

Ruth is arguably the pivot of the plot: her parents have by tragic circumstances fled (as no self-respecting book these days can have a child with 2 living parents it seems) and this leaves her with a strained grandmother and a plethora of rules. This environment creates a palpable sense of tension, especially when Ruth becomes rather involved (ahem) with a popular boy.

On other hand, Dora has the predictable cocktail of the hapless mother slurring her Sundays with beer, and a father who thinks it’s fun to beat her up. Just to make things more interesting, Hitchcock also decided to make her have Inupiat origins so that there could be scenes of racism as well. Which is fine if this was a creative writing project of how many different social problems you can portray in one sitting, however if you’re reading it the main thing that comes across is a desperation to: reveal the scope of characteristics you can write about, appeal to every liberal audience and seem to be supremely intelligent. Which is fine, as long as you don’t want anyone but your inflated version of self to like your book.

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Alyce is sadly a stereotypical story: girl has dream, but family duty calls. Goes to do family duty (here fishing because for some reason the father can’t hire someone or has any friends) and wishes that she could be persuing her dream, ballet-dancing. Readers supposedly are emotionally invested in this girl because of the “heart-wrenching” situation, until (after she has a supernatural whale moment which is frankly weird) she eventually goes to this ballet audition after months of no practise and aces it, which in reality would never happen, but neither do random whale moments. Sorry to ruin the story, but you know you already saw it coming,

Then just to add a male voice so that there was a vague stab at equality (which was never truly reached) there is another storyline. I know, you’re bored already of all these characters vying for attention and so am I. Hank, who it seems thought that running away from his mum and despicable stepfather (because no one in Alaska can have any unclichéd background) was a great idea. The best Hitchcock could do was describe him as a ‘mangy stray dog’ and ‘short and squat, with stubby legs’. Because if a parental figures has stubby legs, you know you’re trouble.  I honestly don’t think if you are living in Canada that just because you hace a bit of family disagrements you will take your two brothers and just go off. That’s all there is to it: people are not that stupid. And then to have a brother who fell off a ferry, (ditto earlier comment as this is out-right stupidity) be magically saved by whales. Really.

So in short, it’s disastrously confusing and although the writing is at first enchanting, by the fifth page it’s clear that the deep-seated editing went into the opening scene and that by the end of the first chapter they thought that ‘Well, if they’ve read this far, they’ve probably bought it and the hook of elaborative worked, so who cares what they think later on.’ Even the better language is simplistic with deer’s hooves being described as ‘pointy like a ballerina’s toes’. (Yes, because there is only one pointed thing in the entire universe, with it also an inappropiate comparison as it makes things more muddled as this girl has no interest later in dance as opposed to Alyce.)

Surprised how this came to be on the Carneige Shortlist.

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