A Good House

A Good House by Bonnie BurnardBonnie Burnard
Henry Holt ($25)

by Kiersten Marek

Bonnie Burnard's first novel is a good book, just as the characters are good people, who live in good houses. The Chambers clan seems better than most, able to handle the death of their mother by cancer without undue havoc, able to accept their father's remarriage and the birth of a new sibling. But as the novel progresses, its very goodness can begin to be a hindrance; it keeps the reader at a safe distance from these good people.

With heavy exposition, the narrative of A Good House often feels more like a well-versed family history than a novel. I say this with sincere respect, since it is a feat to chronicle over 50 years of family life. But telling a family's history is complicated. Whoever is doing the telling is bound to have his or her own blind spots, moments of the story they prefer not to delve into. Burnard's novel seems to do a similar dance of avoidance. The narrative steps back from its characters at critical moments, leaving them like unfinished sketches—unrealized and easily misunderstood. Consequently, the book left me with lots of questions similar to questions I have about people in my own extended family, questions which are not to be asked or answered, lest they threaten to destabilize or debunk. Why, for example, does Daphne refuse to marry Murray? She sleeps with him, bears his children, but in two of the few fully played-out scenes of the novel, she refuses his proposals. The only reason offered by the novel is Daphne's observation that Murray prefers love from a distance. This may be so, but it doesn't show how Daphne prefers love, and why, for the sake of her daughters if not herself, she does not seek a little institutional security.

Where the book lacks in its willingness to depict its often compelling characters more fully, it makes up for in some well-rendered scenes. Daphne falling and breaking her jaw in a neighborhood circus is riveting. Similarly, Burnard gives a connoisseur's attention to the lovemaking between many of the book's couples. She also spares nothing in portraying Daphne in confrontation with her ailing father, Bill. In the advanced stages of Parkinson's disease, Bill serves as a figure of tragicomic relief toward the end of the book, speaking, like a Court Jester, his most vile and base opinions. Of the father of Daphne's affairs resulting in her two daughters, Bill tells his daughter ruthlessly: "He took what he wanted, and you too stupid and ugly to deny him," to which Daphne replies in true Masterpiece Theater form, "You bastard. You God damned bastard."

As with any good house, this novel is filled with little charms, too. Burnard has a gift for carefully nuanced summations, with lines like "She turned on the tap and laid some Colgate along the bristles of her toothbrush." She also demonstrates an impressive understanding of life experience, and can summarize a person's 20-year-emotional career in one swift dash of the pen: "He'd had the words ready for a while, from the time his guilt had finally, and almost without his notice, transmogrified into the lesser sin of profound regret." And her metaphors, while not showy, are wonderfully rich, as in, "She watched him like you might watch an animal grooming himself in the dark of night."

Despite the mystery of Daphne's choice not to marry, in the end the story returns to her. Curiously, Burnard closes the novel with the marriage of Daphne's oldest daughter to an up-and-coming academic (like all good neo-Victorians, she knows that happy stories end with a wedding). Some of the final details about Daphne in this marriage chapter will keep readers pondering. Burnard tells of how Daphne raised her daughters on stories that only contained "the best words, the weird, strange, yummy words," but these stories always had the same revealing moral: "Be careful, children. You are all alone. Be very good or else."

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2001 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2001