Words Cameron Colwell
“My heart fell out on a spring morning — the kind that rose coolly in the east and set brightly in the west…”
One of the problems I have with far too much modern fiction is that it rarely ever seems alive. If I get this feeling with an author who’s been putting out books for decades, it’s because the book almost seems too fine, too nice, and too neat. Like those houses that seem snatched from a Better Home and Gardens cover: The home is there, but it lacks heart. If it’s by a more green author, it’s because the book feels cluttered and underbaked. Reading Anna Spargo-Ryan’s debut, The Paper House, I was overwhelmed by the opposite feeling: Here is a book that is absolutely dripping with raw feeling, rendered in crystalline, fluid prose. I was snatching time wherever I could to finish this book, because it felt like I had to check whether Heather, its protagonist, was doing alright.
The book’s plot, about the deteriorating mental health of Heather, grieving after a stillborn birth, may sound mundane, but the depth of the prose makes the novel, Anna Spargo-Ryan’s debut, a riveting read. Although the impetus of Heather’s grief is started by her stillborn child, her further breakdown is pushed on by hallucinations, and vivid flashbacks to her childhood, in which the figure of her mentally ill deceased mother looms large. Adding to the mental displacement is the fact Heather and her husband have recently moved into a new suburban neighbourhood, with a sprawling garden inhabited by a man only Heather can see. The Paper House is about grief, on all levels: Grief over a mother, over a daughter who never got the chance to live, about a horse that must be put down, about grief over times gone by and childhood blankets and lives that could’ve been, but aren’t. All of this is conveyed in crackling, deeply sensitive prose: “How could he understand?” Heather asks, feeling a disconnect with her sympathetic but somewhat hapless husband, Dave. “How could he know the way my wound would fill and empty like a tide?”
As well as heart-rending, The Paper House is also very insightful about the nature of mental illness’s effect on those close to the sufferer: We see this both in the sections detailling Heather’s childhood, and in the wear brought upon Dave throughout the book. Also piercingly insightful is Spargo-Ryan’s societal observations, always delivered in deadpan, and often with the tone of childhood naiviety: “Gran put the radio on. It’s talkback. That’s when people call the radio and shout about immigrants.”
The Paper House is a fearlessly written book, intimate, and stylistically experimental. That said, I do have to stop gushing, and note that there are some missteps. The poeticism that permeates the novel occasional lapses into an unclear muckinesss: Phrases like “I drifted in and out of the hammock of his voice” almost make it to brilliance, but fall flat. Additionally, the strength of the characterising in Heather and her mother makes the other characters a little vague: I still don’t quite understand the importance of Fleur, Heather’s sister who stays during Heather’s recovery. It doesn’t feel very nice finding faults with this wonderful book, I admit — Like bad-mouthing an old, dear friend. However, the amount of annotations I made in my copy, generally with an excess of exclamation marks, are a testament to how much I enjoyed this book.
Even with its flaws, Anna Spargo-Ryan’s The Paper House is a blazing debut, and I deeply look forward to reading her future work.