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.