Sunday 18 September 2016

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Review: The Smell of Other People's Houses by Bonnie-Sue Hitchcock

The Smell of Other People's Houses by Bonnie-Sue HitchcockThe Smell of Other People's Houses by Bonnie-Sue Hitchcock (review copy) - Alaska, 1970: growing up here is like nowhere else.

Ruth wants to be remembered by her grieving mother.
Dora wishes she was invisible to her abusive father.
Alyce is staying at home to please her parents.
Hank is running away for the sake of his brothers.

Four very different lives are about to become entangled. Because if we don't save each other, how can we begin to save ourselves?

Bonnie-Sue Hitchcock's extraordinary, stunning debut is both moving, and deeply authentic. These intertwining stories of love, tragedy, wild luck, and salvation on the edge of America's Last Frontier introduce a writer of rare and wonderful talent.
From Goodreads.

Although I'm not generally a fan of historical novels, YA set in the recent past I find genuinely fascinating. The Smell of Other People's Houses by Bonnie-Sue Hitchcock is set in Alaska in 1970, so not only is it set in the recent past, but also in a state we rarely hear about, and focusing on the interconnecting stories of four teens during that time, I was thoroughly intrigued. I'm really happy to say that The Smell of Other People's Houses is a completely wonderful story!

The year 1970 is going to be an eventful and life changing year for four Alaskan teens. Ruth's life is turned upside down when she discovers she's pregnant; Dora is kept awake at night by the memories of her abusive father and the thoughts of her uncertain future; Alyce is struggling with choosing between her future and spending time with her dad; and Hank has run away from home with his two younger brothers to escape his mother's abusive boyfriend. Four very different lives in the time after Alaska became the 49th American state, and the world they knew changes.

The Smell of Other People's Houses is one of those beautifully quiet books. The writing is almost lyrical, and feels like being wrapped up in a blanket on a really cold day, feeling cosy and content. Despite how serious some of the individual stories are, this is a soothing read; the experience of reading this book just felt good.

Although a short book at 254 pages that covers four different storylines, Other People's Houses is a deeply involving and emotional story. You can't help but get wrapped up in each teen's life. Ruth's father died when she was five, and her mother was so affected by grief she became mentally ill. Consequently, Ruth and her younger sister Lily have been raised for the past 11 years by their strict, Catholic grandmother. Their home is cold and practically loveless, and Gran is less than pleased when Ruth becomes pregnant. Dora lives at her best friend Dumpling's house, after her father, in a drunken rage, was chasing her through the streets one night. She's haunted by the things he did to her, even though he's now in prison, but doesn't know if her life with Dumpling's family is permanent. Alyce's parents are divorced, and she spends every Summer with her dad on his fishing boat, helping with the catch. Auditions for a top ballet school are happening this Summer, and she needs to be there if she stands any chance of getting a place, but Summer is the only time she gets to spend with her dad, and he needs her on the boat. She doesn't want to let him down. Hank has had to become the man of the house ever since his dad died. His younger brothers are naive and innocent, and the man their mother is now dating treats them badly. Hank has to protect his brothers from this man, and so they runaway, stowing aboard a ferry.

Dora, Alyce and Ruth live in the same town and they know each other, while Hank is escaping from a different part of Alaska. However, it's more than geography that ties any of them together. It's their individual stories; they overlap and affect each other as they intersect at different points of the year. There are a few coincidences in how their stories intersect, and you almost feel like fate's at work, bringing the various characters together at important moments, to learn or experience something. They are quiet, small moments, and they probably wouldn't have changed much of each individual's story if they hadn't happened - except for maybe one - but they change the teens internally; change their perspective or give them something to think about.

Because of where and when it was set, Other People's Houses is a pretty diverse novel, with Dora being Inupiaq (a member of a group of Eskimos/Inuit inhabiting northern Alaska), and her friend Dumpling and her family being Athabascan Native Americans. The community at large in Fairbanks, the town where some of the story is set, is made up of Inuits, Native Americans and white people. Although none of the four narrators is Native American that I could tell (apart from Dora and Dumpling's family, I don't think it's stated? Or I missed it. It wasn't always the clearest who was what race.), at one point in the story, Dora goes to Dumpling's family's to the Athabascan fish camp, and we get a glimpse of how the Athabascan people are as a community, working together to fish for salmon for the Winter.

The setting of Alaska is really important to the story, and is almost a character itself. It's so beautifully described, and you can feel it as well as see it. Sometimes harsh and unforgiving, but undeniably home, and in the blood of everyone. The history and culture of these people are in the very stones. The environment and the time - soon after Alaska became the USA's 49th state, and things began to change - shape the characters as much as their circumstances and their families. The people are rooted in their surroundings. These are people who fish in the Summer so there's food for the Winter, people who hunt deer and cure meat, people who have strong cultural ties to those in their community, where the land and its resources are a big part of their lives. Each character's story is different, but the landscape plays a strong role in each. This story couldn't be set anywhere else.

Other People's Houses is such a beautiful, enjoyable read, with a wonderful ending. Parts of the story are sad and shocking, but it is of it's time, and the ending gives the story an uplifting note, and you're left feeling hopeful for the four teens you've come to care about.

Thank you to Faber & Faber for the review copy.

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Published: 7th April 2016
Publisher: Faber & Faber
Bonnie-Sue Hitchcock's Website


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