Bear with me, my review is long and unflinching, as I don’t think I have ever been so emotionally provoked by a book. Talk about Right Book Timing.
Both Heather and her mother, Shelley, have an unspecified mental illness that causes them to have suicidal tendencies. Both have husbands who they depend on to ‘hold’ them and life together. Heather has an older sister, Fleur, who also takes an enabling and caring role with Shelley and Heather; however, when Fleur needs nurturing following a grief event every bit as traumatic as Heather’s, her needs are subsumed into Heather’s. When her father dares mention that Fleur has “had a shit time”, Heather’s immediate response is, “What about me?”
The divergence in the two sisters’ resilience and coping mechanisms demonstrates differing generational effects of living with a mother with mental illness. One daughter—here the oldest who presumably took on the ‘mother’ role in protecting her younger sister and ‘mothering’ her mother—is so emotionally independent she is unable to maintain long-term relationships, falling into and out of early marriages and choosing unsuitable partners with whom there is no fear of being emotionally attached. Fleur’s protective and defensive mechanisms are well-honed, but these are let down as she warms to Heather’s elderly neighbour. But Heather is largely unaware of Fleur’s needs and feelings, and when tragedy strikes Fleur again while she is vulnerable, this barely creates a ripple in Heather’s world. She doesn’t even know how to hug Fleur to console her. And in turn, Fleur would see a hug as an invasion of her personal space.
In contrast with her older sister who cannot let anyone take care of her, Heather’s emotional and mental instability mirrors their mother’s. Her memories of childhood are of Shelley nurturing Heather’s artistic ability, and her eccentric behaviour. It appears that it is from her mother that Heather has learned to be emotionally co-dependent. When her neighbour tells her that she doesn’t let anything bother her—che sarà sarà—we can see that Heather is unable to understand. She takes for granted the unconditional love given inexhaustibly by her husband, sister and father, lost in her own grief for her unborn child.
“[Dave] saw the life fall out of me and he knew he would have to be the one to hold onto it for a while.”
On the periphery of her increasingly dissociated world as Heather descends into a spiral of mental illness following the stillbirth of her daughter, her husband, Dave is the one who must hold all the fragmented parts of Heather together. From the start of the novel, Heather experiences a separation from her body. Heather’s body disappears out the window, her uterus lies on the bed, and her heart beats on the floor. The imagery is surreal, and her grasp on reality slipping.
The grief storyline told in third person past tense, interwoven with short chapters of Heather’s memories of her mother, in first person present tense. This gives the sense of Heather’s increasing association with her experience of Shelley’s illness, as her own takes hold.
Spargo-Ryan also plays with structure and syntax to show disintegration. When Heather has a breakdown, there are literally blank pages, then slowly, one line, then more, of prose are reintroduced.
“and she said
The prose is lyrical, poetic, with astonishing imagery. Among my favourite lines: “’Breathe,’ he said, but I was polyester.” “How could he know the way my wound would fill and empty and fill and empty like a tide?” “The storm came in its work boots.”
The title ‘The Paper House’ comes from Heather’s hallucination of Noel, an invisible man who lives in her garden in a paper house. As her illness takes hold, she spends more time with him, swimming in the pond, getting drunk, and having parties in fairy circles, until the moment when he morphs into an early memory, leading to Heather’s breakdown/ suicide attempt. At times, I was confused and frustrated as I wasn’t sure what he was supposed to symbolise.
However, there were other houses in this novel, both of which could be a ‘paper house’. There is the house that Dave and Heather buy when she becomes pregnant, and the house becomes pregnant with their hopes and expectations. As insubstantial as paper when she loses the baby. The other house is her childhood house, and when her father surprises her with a visit, they find it recently demolished. But Heather draws it from memory.
“Like I knew it so well that I didn’t even have to actually see it to see it.”
This ‘house on paper’ is more real than the house she lives in, constructed with unrealised dreams. It is made solid through memories of her mother’s tragic life.
It is ironic that Noel who is invisible becomes more real to Heather, as those around her become invisible. Her family and neighbours become a jumble of disembodied body parts. “But his face was just the same as any face, pieced together with spare parts.”
Heather’s father tells her, “I always had to be there for her…But when you’re the partner, no one looks at you…Being the ‘sick one’…gets attention. Caring for the sick one is exhausting.”
Whether they receive gratitude or acknowledgement of it, those on the periphery keep the mentally ill ‘alive’. Literally. When Heather gives up on life, consumed by her grief, it is Dave who seizes on every sign, every inclination that Heather might commit suicide, holding her back from the precipice, forcing her to go to therapy. Such compassionate, unconditional love.
When Heather discovers her mother’s suicide, she looks back in hindsight at all the signs: “And all I know how to think is that we should have called an ambulance yesterday, when she bought six new pairs of shoes, or the day before that when she took me on a picnic at the beach and we ate cheese until our faces hurt…”
It seems futile. If every little act or behaviour was seized on, they would be constantly in and out of hospitals. And some often are. I can understand why Heather’s dad and Dave are exhausted, why Fleur says she just cannot do it again. Keeping someone alive who doesn’t care about living is such a burden to carry.
Though it is not explicit, I feel that Heather feels some of this burden from her mother’s suicide. She didn’t see Shelley’s actions as calls for help or signs of mental illness. Is this why she claims memories of her mother from her father and sister, to keep her mother alive? She collects anecdotes like dismembered body parts.
Ultimately, Heather and Dave construct a narrative of their stillborn daughter’s life, gathering memories of their hopes and dreams for her life with them, piecing them together, making her whole. Only then, when she has become fully alive can she be put to rest.
I found the positioning of the reader to be interesting. We are often told that the reader should empathise with the main character, but I could not empathise with Heather. She continually pushes away while making demands on every other character in the novel, that it felt like the reader was also being pushed away, so that it was a battle to ‘stay with’ Heather’s story. Many times I became so frustrated with her self-centredness that I sided with the peripheral characters—those who exhausted themselves holding her life together.
Spargo-Ryan puts words into the mouth of the secondary characters which might reflect how the reader is feeling towards Heather. For example, when Heather’s father likes the fact she has made an effort to dress nicely for the movies, she responds: “My sadness getting too boring for you?” And yes, quite frankly, as a reader, I do want to say to Heather, ‘Che sarà sarà.’ Her father perhaps has a more sympathetic response and says, “It’s hard when it seems like someone’s not making any progress.” The reader is placed in the invisible position of carer, on Heather’s periphery, frustrated with her lack of recovery, and our needs for progression unmet.
Sylvia is the most sympathetic character in the novel. She tells Heather she is ‘brave’ for wanting to get better. I am torn here at the idea of being able to ‘want’ to get better, like it is a decision. For many people with a mental illness they just don’t get this choice. But there are those for whom the easiness of co-dependency provides them with a continual buffer from life’s troughs. For whom, their loved ones must continue to walk on eggshells around them. Sometimes, like Fleur, the loved one has to just call ‘enough’, to stop being an enabler. In The Paper House, Heather has the choice to follow her mother’s path or create a new story.
The Paper House is about stories. The old stories we tell ourselves: how it’s easy to blame the parents for who we are, how we think our needs should be met, and how we came to be the way we are. The stories of the hopes and dreams and expectations of a life. Stories which might not actually serve our needs. But to release these stories, to step out into the world facing tragedy and joy and whatever will be will be, and allowing those who travel beside us into and out of our lives, is the bravest option.