Like a House on Fire by Cate Kennedy
Few writers understand the short-story form as well as Cate Kennedy, and her latest collection, Like a House on Fire, is a welcome return to the territory of Dark Roots (a book that I still find myself returning to from time to time).
Each piece is a perfect distillation of domesticity – a description that I use not to suggest any kind of smallness, but in fact quite the opposite. Kennedy is a writer who knows exactly how to soothe and stir the aches and pains of contemporary life with singular focus, and Like a House on Fire carries within it everything from a young hospital cleaner yearning for her time in London to a new mother gathering herself and her baby for their first family portrait.
Highlights for me were ‘Seventy-Two Derwents’, a closely spoken, beautifully voiced piece told through the diary of a young girl and the threat that her mother’s new boyfriend presents, as well as ‘Cross-Country’, in which a woman finds herself endlessly trawling the net for clues about her ex-partner’s new life.
The latter is perhaps one of the best examples of the ways in which fiction can tackle the digital – not as something futuristic or awkwardly dated but as a source of real emotional fibre: ‘It’s 2.30 in the morning when I enter the portal, stoop to the keyhole and whisper the name that turns the deadlock. I don’t know why they call it surfing. They should call it drowning.’
Another real pleasure of the collection is without a doubt Kennedy’s cool and glasslike prose. In ‘Cake’ a mother gathers up her young son after their first day apart: ‘Something is tearing inside her, slowly and deliberately, like a perforated seam’, and in ‘Tender’ a woman discovers a small lump under her arm ‘like a pea, buried but resilient, a small sly sphere nesting disguised between layers of flesh and tissue’.
Like a House on Fire is full of these small and careful episodes, worlds that we enter and then are gently removed from.
Jessica Au is the editor of the Readings Monthly and an occasional bookseller down at Readings St Kilda. Her first novel, Cargo was published in 2011.