Saturday, October 11, 2014

The Carriage House, by Louisa Hall

Staff Review by Chris Saliba

Louisa Hall's exquisite debut novel echoes American greats such as John Cheever and Richard Yates.  It's a sustained domestic comedy that pokes fun at middle-class, suburban pretentions

William Adair has the perfect American family: a lovely wife, Margaux, and three beautiful daughters, Elizabeth, Diana and Isabelle. They live in a solidly upper middle-class suburb in ease and comfort. Yet despite perfect appearances, William is growing increasingly dissatisfied. His daughters, now adults, have failed to achieve their early promise. And to top it all off the family’s carriage house, built by William’s grandfather and emblematic of the family’s social eminence, has fallen victim to a zoning error. It now sits on a neighbour’s property, infested with rats and considered a health hazard by the neighbourhood.  A campaign is afoot to tear it down. When William hears the news, it precipitates a stroke.

This is a meticulously wrought novel that reads almost like an existential farce. Despite what the family perceives as their high social status, they are hamstrung by inertia and doubt. William imagines his family to be the envy of every other household in Little Lane, their ironically titled address, but it seems none of their neighbours appreciates this grandeur. In many ways The Carriage House is a sustained domestic comedy that pokes fun at middle-class, suburban pretentions. When the youngest daughter, Isabelle, takes on one of the neigbours who supports the demolition of the carriage house, she talks grandly in terms of war.

In another scene, the eldest daughter Elizabeth, who gives yoga lessons, decides to move away from the theme of forgiveness in her classes and towards strength and warrior poses. The narrative then describes the frustrated housewives in the yoga lessons eager “for permission to turn their lives into a serious fight.”

Even the home help, Louise, is caught in this existential angst. She muses how no one can appreciate the intensity of her personal dreams and ambitions, and notes how once you step out of your dream “you suddenly know that it was only an excuse to avoid the fact that you’re just another sad old tosser living out your boring life before you die.”

The only relatively sane person in the family is Margaux, who is suffering early onset Alzheimer’s. She sticks closely to her gardening and painting, slowly disappearing into this neatly organised world where no one can touch her.

Louisa Hall’s debut novel is reminiscent of many classic American writers who specialise in middle class angst, such as John Cheever and Richard Yates. However, Louisa Hall turns her subject matter into high farce. The Carriage House’s style is finely wrought, the dialogue arch and mannered, yet it keenly observes every small detail of wealthy, dissatisfied suburban life.

The Carriage House, by Louisa Hall. Published by Penguin. ISBN: 9780241962855  RRP: $19.99

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