The Life of Houses

Lisa Gorton

The Life of Houses
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The Life of Houses

Lisa Gorton

The Life of Houses is the new novel by the acclaimed poet Lisa Gorton, whose first book of poetry, Press Release, won the Victorian Premier’s Award for Poetry, and whose second collection, Hotel Hyperion, was awarded the Philip Hodgins Memorial Medal.

The Life of Houses explores, with a poet’s eye for detail, the hidden tensions in an old established Australian family that has lived for generations in a large house in a coastal town in south-eastern Australia. These tensions come to the surface when the granddaughter Kit is sent by her mother to spend a holiday with her grandparents, and the unmarried aunt who looks after them, in their old and decaying house by the sea. Kit barely knows them, because her mother is estranged from the family and never talks to or visits them. Recently divorced from Kit’s father, she sends her daughter to her parents now so she can pursue an affair with her new lover. Kit’s presence brings the old quarrels to life as family memories take hold of the present, brought to a flashpoint by the anger and resentment of Kit and her mother, and the dementia and sudden illness of her grandparents.

The Life of Houses
is written in an extraordinarily expressive and dynamic prose that makes use of the close focus and the oblique perspectives that Gorton has mastered so successfully in her poetry. It is a style reminiscent of Henry James and Patrick White, a high style, perfectly suited to the social decorum and inhibition of her socially elevated but unhappy subjects.


The Sydney Morning Herald once described Lisa Gorton as ‘one of the most sensuous and cerebral of Australian poets’, praise that could equally apply to her first novel, The Life of Houses. Gorton is already the author of two poetry collections – Press Release, for which she won the Victorian Premier’s Award, and Hotel Hyperion – and a novel for young adults, Cloudland.

In The Life of Houses, gallery director Anna, recently estranged from her husband, has embarked on a tentative affair with Sydney lawyer, Peter. Kit, Anna’s teenage daughter, doesn’t know of the affair and Anna is reluctant to reveal it to her. So when Peter comes to Melbourne, Anna sends Kit off to her parents’ house in a coastal town in southeastern Victoria. The house is old and decaying, as are its inhabitants, Kit’s grandparents and her unmarried aunt Treen who cares for them. Kit has only visited once before when she was quite young. Anna has had little to do with her family or the town since she left home 20 years earlier to go to art school.

Kit is given her mother’s old room; it too is dark and decaying. Kit’s grandfather Patrick has amassed a collection of objects that clutter up the spaces of the house and add to its eerie feel, even as he declares, ‘These and the house will be yours one day.’ On a trip to town Kit meets an artist, Scot, who claims to have been her mother’s closest friend. ‘How come she’s never spoken of you?’ Kit asks him bluntly. This is just one of many questions pushed out into the light by her visit about a past with which Kit is unfamiliar and everyone else has been trying to forget.

Gorton’s prose is beautiful, full of a melancholy imagery that suits the general dissatisfaction that Kit and Anna have with their lives. This is a very fine debut.

Mark Rubbo is the Managing Director of Readings.

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