Table of Contents
- TECHNIQUES AND METALANGUAGE
- THEME ANALYSIS
- Alienation and Loneliness
- Fantasy versus Reality
- Physical Trauma
- CHARACTER ANALYSIS
- Quote Analysis
- Essay 1: “The characters in these stories are all finding ways of keeping up appearances.” Discuss.
- Essay 2: “The room is stiff with a charged awkwardness, with languages I can’t speak.” How does Kennedy show communication issues to be central in these stories?
- Essay 3: “Characters in these stories have little control over their lives.” Do you agree?
- Essay 4 : “Like a House on Fire shows that family relationships are never perfect.” Discuss.
- Essay 5 : Cate Kennedy warns her readers of disparities between fantasies and reality in Like a House on Fire, particularly regarding families and relationships. Discuss.
- Essay 6 : Discuss the role of despair in these stories.
- Essay 7 : In Like a House on Fire, Kennedy shows that women are most adversely affected by gender roles. To what extent do you agree?
- Essay 8: Like a House of Fire finds isolation and loneliness in all its stories. Discuss.
Like a House on Fire is a collection of short stories by acclaimed Australian author Cate Kennedy. The collection was published in 2012 by Scribe, and subsequently won the Queensland Literary Award in 2013.
Kennedy crafts fifteen short stories. She takes as her main focus the personal lives of ordinary people. She has a keen interest in families, and is particularly interested in exploring the destructive tensions which run through even the most seemingly content of families. She is similarly invested in relationships, and frequently depicts the complexities of love in its many forms. Despair at fading relationships or lost relationships is also a recurrent theme. The stories essentially focus on the importance of ordinary, tiny things. They are rarely dramatic, and even the stories which focus on life-changing trauma are more interested in the emotional aftermath of that trauma than they are in depicting the act itself. Essentially, all the stories depict events which would signify nothing to an outside observer, but which through Kennedy’s deft characterisation are shown to be absolutely vital to the people involved. The two most common settings are the household or the workplace.
All the stories are set in Australia. Kennedy gives her stories a genuine, realistic feel through attention to Australian vernacular and to specific objects or customs. The stories are clearly Australian, but the themes they touch on – of love, despair, family, the tension between earning a living and staying true to principles, disadvantage and communication – are universal. With one or two exceptions, a non-Australian would have no difficulty in comprehending any element of the text.
The stories are told from a range of perspectives; men, women, children, mothers, fathers, sisters. The characters also come from a range of socio- economic backgrounds. Ideas of poverty and social class are present in the stories, and Kennedy does not shy away from those themes, but overwhelmingly she is interested in depicting individuals with highly particular and individual experiences, rather than critiquing social systems and structures. What can be said as broadly true for the collection is the attention to detail in the creation of her settings. In Flexion the reader is told exactly how the parched grass feels under Mrs Slovak’s feet; in Whirlpool the precise difference in light is described as Anna walks from her backyard into the cool and quiet house; in Laminex and Mirrors Kennedy conjures a world of clinical sterility. This attention to detail, combined with the determined realism of the plots and characterisations, means that Like a House on Fire could be described as a “slice of life” collection. That is, the stories are realistic, detailed and accurate, as if they are a slice of real, lived life which happens to have been recorded in a short story.
The stories often depict characters at a low point in their life. Loss – from death or more often separation – is a recurring theme, as is disadvantage, trauma and emotional paralysis. Despite this, there is a fierce vein of hope and optimism which runs throughout the collection. Kennedy almost always ends her stories on a note of hope, or at least depicts characters who for all their suffering are still prepared to carry on and overcome their woes. For this reason, the stories can be thought of as affirming of humanity and life.
TECHNIQUES AND METALANGUAGE
Like a House on Fire is a collection of highly literary stories. “Literary” in this context means that they tackle fundamental and universal themes, and that they are written in a sophisticated and technically adroit fashion.
One of the keys to Kennedy’s mastery of the short story form is her knack for characterisation. In a short story, with limited space and limited opportunity for character development, character must be established quickly and unmistakeably. Kennedy achieves this by crafting unique voices for each character. Chris in Ashes thinks in complex, scathing sentences, and with a sophisticated vocabulary, highlighting his university education. In Static, the sardonic observations of Anthony instantly establish him as witty but world- weary, and the entirety of Seventy-Two Derwents is written in the simple, naïve style of its child protagonist. Closely connected to characterisation are Kennedy’s choices regarding perspective. Many stories are written in a limited version of the third person – that is, the narrative voice speaks in the third person but is only aware of that which the character is, and picks up the inflections of that character’s voice. This allows the reader to understand the protagonist’s thought process, but also provides an important distance from them. In Sleepers, for example, the reader can sympathise with Ray because they can understand why he makes the choices he does; however, the reader is also keenly aware that he is making the wrong decision. In Whirlpool, Kennedy evokes the claustrophobia of her domestic setting by writing in the second person, and stories such as White Spirit are written in the first-person, which gives the most opportunity for conveying character voice.
The stories employ a substantial amount of evocative, descriptive language. This helps to place the reader in the setting of the story, and almost let them feel the setting in the way the characters do. In Flexion, for example, describes the “dry furrowed earth rising and falling and crumbling” under Mrs Slovak’s feet. In Cross-Country, it is little details described pointedly, such as clothing going mouldy in a basket, which best highlight the despair of the protagonist. Connected to this style of prose is metaphor and symbolism. The final lines of Whirlpool, for example, describe the “unshed tears” of the swimming pool. The figurative description of the pool can be read as a metaphor for the characters in the family who all hold their own unspoken (“unshed”) resentments against other members of the family.
Structurally, many of the stories spend the majority of the text exploring the tensions between the protagonists and their surroundings or other characters, building this tension to a seemingly insurmountable level. However, the stories often then end with a sense of emotional release. That tension is usually alleviated by a small gesture of intense human connection.
- The Slovacks clasping hands in Flexion
- Chris wiping the ash from his mother’s lapel in Ashes
- The narrator wheeling Moreton through the hospital in Laminex and Mirrors
- The narrator letting down the hair of his wife in Like a House on Fire
- Michelle breastfeeding her baby in Five-Dollar Family
- Liz breastfeeding her son in Cake
- The photo/embrace in White Spirit
Some stories, such as Static and Sleepers, do not end with a comfortable resolution to the tensions built up over their course, and thus end on a somewhat bleaker note.
The stories are extremely self-contained, and do not make much reference to texts outside of the collection. There are allusions to various other cultural touchstones – both Five-Dollar Family and Cake make reference to iconic Australian children’s entertainers the Wiggles, for example. There are nevertheless some references to other texts. Ashes is reminiscent of the Book of Common Prayer (“Ashes to ashes, dust to dust”), and Flexion is so similar to the iconic Australian short story The Drover’s Wife by Henry Lawson that it almost reads as a retelling of that story. Overwhelmingly, however, the texts are too closely connected to the minds of their protagonists to indulge in any serious instances of intertextuality.
Alienation and Loneliness
Many of the characters feel an intense sense of alienation and loneliness. Sometimes this sense of disconnection is a result of their workplace. In White Spirit, for example, the unnamed protagonist attempts to bridge cultural differences on the council estate where she works. Amongst the wildly diverse inhabitants of the estate she finds herself to be a “dowdy, sad sparrow among peacocks.” Similarly, the narrator of Laminex and Mirrors is working at her job, cleaning in a hospital, in order to save money to fly to London. She envisages herself “absorbing culture and life” in the great capitols of Europe, and feels a strong sense of alienation from her co-workers, who find the fact that she reads for pleasure so remarkable that they refer to her as “the scholar.” Another example is Liz in Cake, who on her first day back after her maternity leave finds herself at odds with her colleagues, who all insist that working is far superior to child-rearing, an assessment Liz herself does not agree with.
It is alienation within the family unit, however, which is perhaps most striking in Like a House on Fire. In Whirlpool, Kennedy examines the unspoken divisions and allegiances of a small family. Twelve-year-old Anna finds herself growing ever distant from her mother, who clings to an idealised image of what she imagines her family to be, symbolised by her obsession with taking the perfect photo of them all to send to her distant friends. Anna finds herself unable to communicate with her own mother, who is “grim with the need to plot exile and allegiance” within her own family. In Ashes, Chris and his mother must navigate a complex history. They scatter the ashes of Chris’ father, who could never understand Chris’ lack of interest in traditionally masculine pursuits such as fishing, or his homosexuality. Indeed, his father’s final conversation with Chris was a request not to “throw” his homosexuality in his mother’s face. This inability to be open with his family led to Chris breaking up with his boyfriend Scott, compounding his loneliness. In Static, Anthony finds himself utterly alienated from his parents and his wife during their
Christmas lunch, where the follies of both parties are clearly displayed.
Alienation in the wake of relationships is also common in Like a House on Fire. In Sleepers, Ray finds himself in a state of paralysis, under employed in a half-time job, and beholden to a strange “lethargy” following being dumped by his girlfriend Sharon. This sense of alienation and paralysis results in him making the disastrous decision to assert some degree of control by stealing some sleepers from a construction site, for which he is arrested. Similarly, in Cross-Country, Rebecca is unable to break out of her lethargy following her divorce, and isolates herself from society.
As much as the stories are characterised by isolation and alienation, many of them do end optimistically. Laminex and Mirrors, Ashes, Flexion, White Spirit and many more all end in images of intense and intimate human connection.
Fantasy versus Reality
Many of the characters in Like a House on Fire have unrealistic expectations or fantasies which inevitably result in disappointment. In Whirlpool, Anna’s mother is driven by the desire to create a perfect image of her family as a harmonious and happy entity which she can advertise to obscure connections in her annual Christmas cards. Ironically, her desire to take the perfect photo results in an exacerbation of the sort of unspoken resentments and divisions she hopes to hide. Similarly, Anthony in Static is attracted to his wife Marie because of the little physical imperfections, such as a crooked tooth, which make her beauty real and human, whereas Marie can only see beauty in perfectly posed photos which present “a perfected study of herself.” The desire for a false, physical connection is also evident, occasionally, in Laminex and Mirrors, both in the cosmetics which the narrator’s co-worker sells and in the brief description of the rhinoplasty ward. In Cross-Country, Rebecca inhabits a dream world in which she will compete against her ex-husband in a race, and beat him. She describes this fantasy as a “short film looping” in her head, and marvels at the extent to which “we’ll invent what we need.” Her illusion is shattered, mercifully, and the story ends with her decision to symbolically shut down the computer with which she had attempted to stalk her ex-husband and leave the house.
In some stories, the illusions which characters had clung to are well and truly dispersed by the time we meet them. In Tender, Christine recalls the imagined future she dreamt up, of domestic bliss, “a golden halo of lamplight, polished floors…everything clean and wholesome as a cake of handmade soap.” Instead, the house is “makeshift and unfinished,” a “more prosaic reality” full of ideas which “buckled in the face of reality and time.” Her and Al’s dream, of a super-sustainable and ecofriendly house existing without the benefits of electric heating or even toasters, has long since had to adapt to reality, and practicality. Another character who has broken out of her illusions by the time she enters a story is Michelle. The discovery that her boyfriend Des had been sleeping with other women while she was pregnant is the final, obvious truth that he is not going to be the husband she needs or the father that her child will need. She describes the process of realising this as an epiphany. After she has given birth, she feels the certainty that Des is a no-hoper flood into her “like a door opening.”
Illusions and fantasy are not presented as being exclusively dangerous, however. In White Spirit, the unnamed narrator fantasises that the mural she has commissioned for the council estate where she works will be a joint effort bringing the diverse occupants of the estate together. When it fails in that respect, she is disheartened; however, the story ends with a moment of connection with some of the estate’s inhabitants. Her expectations may not have been met in the way she anticipated, but the effort brought her closer to the community she works for. Similarly, the final story in the collection, Seventy- Two Derwents, can be read as a metaphor for the power of hope. Twelve-year- old Tyler lives with her mother, his boyfriend and her older sister in poverty, and Shane, the boyfriend, is violent and on parole. After he nearly murders her, the account, written as a series of journal entries from Tyler, ends with a solemn “promise” to collect a baby bird from her teacher to nurture, and a declaration of her intention to keep writing and to become an artist. Thus, the ability to envisage a better world is shown to be a positive trait, and even a necessary one for survival.
Kennedy pays much attention to gender, and is deeply sympathetic to the plights of both men and women. Several of her stories revolve around women trapped in unfulfilling relationships; occasionally, these relationships are even dangerous. The first story in the collection, Flexion, depicts a woman so tied down to her thankless marriage to Frank Slovak that she is literally defined by it: she is only ever referred to as Mrs Slovak or Frank’s wife, and by the townspeople in their rural community as “the quiet one.” After a terrible accident cripples Frank, her immediate sensation at his surviving it is not joy but resentment that she must now serve him even more intently than before; she feels “cheated.” She takes some control over the farm, and orders him to “get on that phone” and thank the well-wishers who have worked on the house in his absence. However, Mrs Slovak learns that Frank’s reluctance to accept help is not because he is misanthropic but because he himself is trapped in his own gender role, as a rugged, stoic man who is entirely self-dependent and always in control. Their quiet reconnection at the end of the story is mirrored in Waiting, in which the trials of the unnamed narrator attempting to become pregnant are paralleled by her husband’s equally futile efforts to grow a bountiful wheat crop.
In Tender, Christine is infuriated by her husband Al, who is in his own way loving and dutiful but vague to the point that everything “seems to be teetering on the verge of coming apart.” Christine loves her children and her house and probably Al, but the potential cancer in her body throws her role in the world into sharp relief over the course of the story, prompting a reflection on her life. In Five- Dollar Family, as discussed above, the Michelle’s reflections on her relationship with Des are much further developed, and she has no interest in maintaining a connection with him – especially since he will almost certainly be sent to prison. Whilst in Five-Dollar Family Des is presented as clearly thuggish but has never directly threatened Michelle, in Seventy-Two Derwents Shane rapidly moves from being seedy, spying on Tyler in her sleep and asking about “boyfriends,” to actually threatening murder. In the story’s climax, he pulls a knife on Tyler, her sister and her mother after the authorities learn that he has broken the terms of his parole. The scene shows at once the worst of masculinity and the strength of womanhood: the two girls and their mother face Shane down, and Tyler’s mother stabs him with her sewing scissors.
Kennedy also displays a keen awareness of the limitations and expectations of masculinity. In Ashes, Chris reflects on his late father’s inability to accept his lack of interest in traditionally masculine pursuits such as fishing. He recalls his father angrily declaring that he doesn’t “know what’s bloody wrong” with him. Chris’ homosexuality also sits well and truly outside of his more conservative parents’ notions of masculinity. Ashes at least ends on a positive note, suggesting reconciliation between Chris and his mother. By far the bleakest depiction of masculinity in the collection is Ray in Sleepers, who, along with many of the men in his town, find himself unemployed or underemployed owing to the outsourcing of major infrastructure projects. The story charts his decline into hopelessness, until, desperate to assert himself in some way upon the world, he makes the disastrous decision to steal a few of the redgum sleepers being unearthed at the construction site, leading to his arrest. Ultimately, Kennedy’s writing stresses the importance of respect and equality, and argues that any gender role, male or female, which encroaches on the autonomy of its subject, is harmful.
Many of the stories focus on bodily damage or trauma; or rather, on the implications of physical trauma rather than the act itself. In Flexion, Frank is crushed by his own tractor, and has his spine snapped: “not dead… but might as well be.” Miraculously, he survives, but this makes him so dependent that his wife, Mrs Slovak, can only feel barely contained “choking rage” burning through her. He cannot walk or wash unaided and is in constant pain. The sudden change in their relationship, as Frank, who had longed played the role of a bloody-mindedly stoic and self-sufficient Australian male, suddenly becomes completely dependent on his wife, forms the main part of the story. The honesty they find, as Mrs Slovak takes control of their farm, is foreshadowed neatly in the early image of a “strongbox” full of “every emotion he’s withheld from her in the last eighteen years” breaking open. Physical damage also looms over Laminex and Mirrors in the form of Mr Moreton, who is dying from cancer. The unnamed protagonist takes it upon herself to sacrifice her job in order to make his final days a little more joyous and human. In Little Plastic Shipwreck, Roland spends his days working at a pathetic aquarium complex in order to provide for him and his wife Liz, who suffered brain damage after falling from a balcony. He also sacrifices his job, although in this case it is that rather than mutilate the dead body of a dolphin. The ending of this story is less triumphant than Laminex and Mirrors, however; the protagonist of the latter is only potentially sacrificing a trip to Europe, whereas Roland must now find some new means of income to support his desperately ill wife. Finally, Like a House on Fire charts the tragi- comic feelings of helplessness that its protagonist feels as he impotently tries to maintain his household following a work injury which makes standing or walking agonisingly painful. He spends much of his story on the floor, “like a beaten dog,” attempting to get his sons to help decorate the Christmas tree. The focus of the stories is never the injury itself; indeed, in the case of Laminex and Mirrors or Like a House on Fire the exact nature of the injury is left reasonably ambiguous. Rather, the focus is on the aftermath of these injuries, and especially their ramifications for human relationships.
Poverty and Class
Cate Kennedy’s stories are focussed largely on very private human interactions, and display little in the way of political attitudes. Nevertheless, she exhibits a keen awareness of class and disadvantage. Sometimes this is through the perspective of more educated, presumably wealthier characters. Chris in Ashes for example is university-educated and thinks in a precise and eloquent fashion, conveyed in long, multi-clausal and lightly ironic sentences: “He thinks of them in formidable capitals: the Book Club Women. Women perennially sitting around modular lounge suites, criticising someone’s book.” He exhibits a certain disdain for his parents, and his desire to read rather than fish with his dad combined with his parents’ quiet disappointment with his homosexuality suggest that he is a more educated, progressive individual than his parents. In Laminex and Mirrors a similar tension exists between the narrator, who years to travel Europe and drink in the “culture” and her co- workers, who have no ambitions further than their cleaning work and find the fact that the protagonist reads for pleasure to be remarkable.
Other stories are told from the perspective of disadvantage or poverty. Five- Dollar Family does not stress so much as imply the low socio-economic status of its characters. Michelle does not mention any work awaiting her after giving birth, and Des exhibits distinctly “lower-class” tastes. Certainly they find the idea of a family photo for $5 extremely enticing. They are not mocked for their status, however: Kennedy’s stories are always compassionate. In Seventy- Two Derwents, however, some of the grimmer realities of poverty are on display. Tyler’s mum seems to have lived a life characterised by early pregnancy, estrangement, and terrible boyfriends, the latest of which is the violent Shane. The mother must prove that she can work by creating and selling luxury dolls in order to access a benefit scheme. Ellie, the older sister, is upwardly mobile, aiming to study, and this at times earns the resentment of her mother, who sees her daughter’s success as mere “showing off.” Whilst told with Kennedy’s usual warmth and humanity – possibly even more than usual – the story still emphasises the potential catastrophe of poverty; Shane almost kills Tyler.
Kennedy often takes the family unit as the focus of her stories. She is particularly interested in the divisions and tensions which simmer away under the surface of families. In Whirlpool, Kennedy presents a family riddled with unspoken resentments and bitterness. The setting, of a hot, interminable Australian summer, captures the sense of unbearably building distaste the young protagonist Anna feels for her family, and especially her mother. As discussed above, her mother obsesses over capturing the perfect photo of her family, often in such a way as to blind her to the reality of the family’s actual level of cohesion. The sense of a group of people mindlessly performing the rituals of a happy and loving family is also captured in Static. Anthony spends much of the story reflecting on the lack of love apparent in his marriage. The sense of performing the role of loving son to his parents is captured when his nephew asks why he must appear incredibly pleased with his grandmother’s lacklustre gift, and Anthony finds himself at a loss as to why he should bother pandering to “the domineering old harridan.” The title has several meanings, one of which is to be static, or still – and Anthony’s state, stuck in a seemingly joyless family unit, captures that meaning.
In Ashes, it is Chris’ homosexuality and lack of interest in traditional masculine pursuits such as fishing which drives a wedge between him and his family. He finds his mother’s determination to whitewash her strained relationship with their dead father and husband, and to rewrite history so that the pair of them went on many fishing trips which they both enjoyed, to be utterly “nauseating.” Even with Alan dead, his ghost seems to linger and strain the relationship between mother and son. A similar strain is even more evident in Seventy- Two Derwents, between Ellie and her mother. The pair frequently argue with each other and the mother seems to deeply resent Ellie’s determination to pull herself out of her family’s disadvantage by working hard, saving money and aiming to go to TAFE or university. However, the pair and the younger sister Tyler eventually face down the abusive Shane, and seem to be growing stronger by the end of the story. This vein of hope runs throughout the entire collection. In Ashes Chris, for all his (understandable) bitterness, seems to yearn for reconciliation with his mother, symbolised in his brushing ash from her shoulder in the final lines. Like a House on Fire and Five-Dollar Family both depict fraught family situations which end on positive, hopeful notes. Kennedy seems to hold that no family is perfect, but that very few families are broken beyond hope of repair.
Many of the stories in this collection feature breakdowns in communication between characters. White Spirit depicts its unnamed narrator struggling to communicate with people who speak “languages I don’t understand,” and who feels a profound disappointment that she cannot communicate as readily as she would like to with the people she ostensibly works for. Cake features a similar predicament. Liz is unable to express to her grief at having to leave her son in the care of strangers. Her co-workers are adamant that working is far superior to staying at home and tending to the needs of children. Liz disagrees, finding herself vaguely surprised at just how pointless and meaningless her work at her office really is; when she attempts to explain that she likes spending time with her son to her co-workers, however, she can tell that “this is not the answer they want.”
More commonly, however, Kennedy depicts this broken communication within relationships and families. Whirlpool vividly depicts the growing alienation between twelve-year-old Anna and her mother. Anna speaks rarely throughout the story. When she does, it is often in a whisper. Instead she finds herself giving a “traitorous” smile to her mother, who she can barely bring herself to speak to. The final image of the story is of a pool filled with “unshed tears” – symbolic of the unspoken tensions rife in the household. In Static Anthony is constantly making sardonic observations about both his wife and his mother, suggesting his growing estrangement from both of them. Flexion depicts a relationship in which no meaningful emotional connection has been made for eighteen years, and Like a House on Fire vividly explores the effects of chronic pain on a marriage in which tensions are more frequently expressed by stony silence than they are through words.
Kennedy frequently takes her characters into places where language alone no longer suffices. However, she never leaves them stranded there. The stories frequently end with a non-verbal affirmation between two characters; clasped hands, an embrace or something similar. This suggests that for Kennedy there are forms of connection and communication which run deeper than language.
Frank and Mrs Slovak
Frank Slovak and his wife, who is never named, are one of many uneasy relationships in the collection. Frank is brooding, domineering, and emotionally repressed. It takes a horrific accident – being crushed by his own tractor – to open up the emotional “locked strongbox” he has kept shut for so long. He is stubborn and wilful, and resents being compelled to accept aid from anybody. His wife is not given a name, reflecting her status in the relationship; similarly, the townspeople refer to her as “the quiet one.” The strain on their already frosty relationship is initially exacerbated by Frank’s injury, to the extent that she resents his survival. However, when he himself confides sorrowfully that his death would have been a gift he “could give [her],” she understands his own emotional turmoil, and the story ends on a hopeful note.
Ashes depicts Chris struggling with the memory of his father, who was uneasy with Chris’ homosexuality. Chris is an articulate, university-educated young man who never fit into his father’s vision of a typically masculine son. Chris also struggles not to resent his own mother, who engages in a wholesale “revisionism” of Chris and his father’s relationship. She reinvents their incredibly awkward fishing trips as cherished memories, despite the fact that they were few and deeply unsatisfactory. Chris also struggles with the memory of his ex-boyfriend. The story ends with his unspoken acceptance of his mother’s grief.
The narrator of Laminex and Mirrors
The narrator of Laminex and Mirrors is a recent high-school graduate working a temporary job as a cleaner at a hospital in order to fund her planned holiday in Europe. She is something of a fish-out-of-water character within the hospital; she yearns for Europe and is nicknamed the Scholar by her co- workers owing to the fact that she occasionally reads for pleasure. She is also frustrated by the arbitrariness of the hospital; she resents being told to clean an old wing which is “about to be demolished” and she feels uncomfortable about the strict rules which forbid any fraternising between staff and patients. She befriends the terminally ill Mr Moreton and eventually gifts him a final morning in the sun with a cigarette, presumably at the cost of her own job.
Christine is another character in the collection who is embedded in a long- term relationship which has not panned out precisely as she had anticipated. She and her husband Al attempted to create an eco-friendly, anti-modern family home, which Christine “loves” but concedes seems permanently “unfinished.” Many of their plans for the house and their lifestyles have been abandoned for practical reasons. She has a lump which must be surgically excised, and this brush with mortality serves to highlight the issues in her life – her vague husband, unfinished house and unruly children – but also reaffirms her love of her family.
The narrator of Like a House on Fire
The narrator of the titular story is a husband and father who is left crippled and helpless after a severe back injury. He must try to organise Christmas from his position on the floor of his loungeroom, where he parks himself in order to exert control over his children while his wife, Claire, works extra shifts. Like all the stories involving bodily trauma in the collection – and there are many – the focus is not on the injury itself but its repercussions, and the effect it has on the emotional life of the person who suffers it. In this case, it is the strain put on the husband-wife relationship and the emasculating effects on the narrator which Kennedy explores.
Like many female characters in Like a House on Fire, Michelle is in a relationship with a useless man. Des is a philanderer, a drunkard and a thug. The story focusses on Michelle’s experience as a new mother, who gives birth to a son and has an epiphany about Des, and determines to live a more fulfilling life once he is out of the picture – and judging by his impending court date, that will not be far off. Through Michelle, Kennedy again affirms the relationship between mother and child creates a hopeful portrait of a young woman taking control of her life.
The narrator of Cross-Country
In Cross-Country, Kennedy paints an often darkly wry and comic portrait of post-breakup depression. The central character has been divorced by her husband, and spent most of her period of leave sitting in her own home, amidst mess and chaos, and obsessively attempting to track him down on her computer. She convinces herself that he has joined a cross-country club and fantasises about competing against him and humiliating him. When she realises that she has fooled herself she feels a metaphorical “cool and unexpected breeze” and seems to determine to re-join the outside world.
Ray is a sensitively-drawn no-longer-young male. He can only find work for a few days a week in a town where much of the male population is unemployed, partially due to outside contractors being given most of the new infrastructure projects. He has also slumped into a deep lethargy following being dumped by his former girlfriend. He lives in the shed of a friend. The rail project in his town becomes a fixation for many of the un- or underemployed men, who attempt to engage in some small act of defiance by stealing the old redgum sleepers which are being pulled up. Ray convinces himself to steal some and the story closes with the police surprising him.
Anna is a twelve-year-old girl with a fraught relationship with her mother, who fixates on appearances and obsessively attempts to create the perfect family Christmas photo. Anna’s mother seems intent on creating tiny rifts, loyalties and divisions within the family. It is a deeply unhealthy dynamic for Anna, who is self-conscious about her weight and body-image. Anna is an extremely sensitively-drawn portrait of a young girl on the cusp of adolescence, and Whirlpool expertly creates a sense of menace and paranoia in a suburban Australian home.
Liz, the central character of Cake, is a first-time mother who has just returned to work after maternity leave. She is horrified at the prospect of leaving her son in the care of others, and is forced with the realisation that her office job is full of banal and completely pointless tasks. Worse, she feels a sense of alienation from her co-workers, who universally agree that maternity leave was stressful and exhausting and that they couldn’t wait to get back to work. Liz is an interesting example of a woman who finds more “liberating” gender roles to be in their won way as constrictive as traditional gender roles.
The narrator of White Spirit
The narrator of White Spirit is a well-meaning but exhausted and alienated manager on a housing estate for immigrants. The story focusses on her futile effort to create a sense of community by commissioning a huge painted mural. However, her despair is challenged by a moment of connection with her charges at the end of the story.
Roley is a typical character for Like a House on Fire. He is working a casual job he hates in order to support his brain-damaged wife as she recovers. Also like many characters in the collection, the story peaks with a small moment of defiance. Ordered to cut up the body of a dead dolphin at the aquarium at which he works, he eventually snaps and loses his job, putting his sense of decency above his economic needs.
Anthony lives with his beautiful wife Marie in a beautiful home. Their perfect life is something of a façade, hiding various tensions – the luxury of the house depends on credit and debts, Marie is ashamed of any little humanising imperfection in her body, they want children but cannot conceive and eventually Anthony is faced with the fact that his economically poorer sister and her husband might actually be happier than he is. He has a biting, ironic sense of humour, particularly when critiquing the actions of his domineering wife.
The reader experiences young Tyler’s perspective on the world through her journal which she keeps for school. She is perceptive, articulate and very artistic, but also dangerously naïve, considering her disorderly family house, characterised by poverty and abuse. Her mother’s boyfriend, Shane, clearly takes a sexual interest in the two daughters, and turns violent by the end of the novel. However, Tyler and her sister and mother overcome Shane and the story – and thus the collection – ends on an optimistic note, with the voice of a creative young girl pledging to follow her dreams.
- “Not dead, they said, but might as well be. Caught him straight across his spine.” (1)
– Bodily trauma is a recurring motif throughout the collection. Kennedy uses damage to the body for a number of purposes, often, as in this case, as a metaphor for emotional paralysis. Frank’s incapacity represents his inability to connect to other people, especially his wife.
- “Yeah, his wife, they said finally, nodding. The quiet one.” (2)
– In Flexion, Kennedy begins crafting her motif of women in unfulfilled marriages. Mrs Slovak is defined by her unhappy marriage – literally so; she is never given any other name than Mrs Slovak or, more frequently, Frank’s Wife.
- “As she runs she kicks off her slippery town shoes and feels dry furrowed earth rising and falling and crumbling under her bare feet all the way to where he’s lying.” (2)
– Kennedy writes most of her stories in the present tense. Combined with vivid details such as the texture of the “dry furrowed earth,” this makes them feel immediate and relatable.
- “It’s as if the locked strongbox inside has burst open…” (3)
– Kennedy creates a vivid metaphor of a “strongbox” bursting open and repressed thoughts bursting out and “writhing” around. This is symbolic of the way in which physical trauma unlocks repressed emotions in many of the stories.
- “The year she’d lost a baby…” (4)
– See Lawson, The Drover’s Wife: “One of the children died while she was here alone. She rode nineteen miles for assistance, carrying the dead child.” In the original story, the Drover is physically distant from his wife. In Flexion, he is emotionally distant. Kennedy frequently uses infants and childbirth as symbols of the female experience, and as ways for women to feel a connection to others which they might otherwise lack. The repression of the story of the baby is thus symbolic of the repression of Mrs Slovak generally.
- “…and she sits composing her face into relief and optimism while inside, truth be known, she feels cheated.” (6)
– The image of the wife “composing” her face to hide her shameful disappointment is a powerful example of the sort of secret inner lives which Kennedy presents throughout her stories.
- “It’s easier to nod and agree, to pretend to take his advice about what she should be doing about the farm work.” (7)
– In these stories men, boyfriends and husbands are often portrayed as dominating women, physically or emotionally (this is most true of Seventy-two Derwents). However, it is rarely that simple. The implicit suggestion in these lines that Mrs Slovak has no interest in actually following her husband’s advice, but rather does things her own way, reveals the complexities of their relationship. Frank, particularly in his debilitated state, needs to feel he has control over something; his wife maintains the illusion whilst seeing to it that the best courses of action are taken. The relationship is not a happy one exactly, but it is a functioning one.
- “And while the physio shakes her head in admiration… she can’t trust herself to open her mouth.” (8)
– This long, multi-clausal sentence is characteristic of Kennedy’s stream-of-consciousness style. We watch the scene unfold, from the doctor’s perspective and then to Mrs Slovak’s, and the manner in which Kennedy piles clauses on top of each other mimics Mrs Slovak’s train of thought.
- “… choking rage burns like a grass fire, like gasoline.” (8)
– This metaphor evokes the setting, of a farm, by comparing Mrs Slovak’s rage to quintessential rural objects/experiences.
- “…tormented by something as incomprehensible and enraging as kindness.” (10)
– Meaningful human connection is one of the hardest things for characters to experience in Like a House on Fire. Frank has walled himself off from the world so effectively that he is completely unable to understand why someone might do something out of sheer generosity.
- “…and get on that phone.” (13)
– Mrs Slovak takes control here – she forces Frank to acknowledge that they cannot continue in isolation; he must accept the kindness of others.
- “Now would be a good time to die, while you weren’t there. That’s what I could give you.” (15)
– Mrs Slovak realises here how aware of his own, self-imposed entrapment Frank is. His surliness is not evidence of an antisocial nature but rather a terrible fear of being a burden to others. This is true to the extent that he would have preferred to free his wife by dying. This is evidence that for Kennedy, traditional gender roles are as debilitating for men as they are for women.
- “She places his hand wordlessly, determinedly, over his heart, and holds it there.” (16)
– Kennedy uses a moment of intimate physical connection to symbolise the underlying unity of Frank and his wife.
- “He thinks of them in formidable capitals: the Book Club Women. Women perennially sitting around modular lounge suites, criticising someone’s book.” (18)
– A good example of the subjective third person narrative voice Kennedy writes in for several stories. Although not in first person, the narration still captures something of Chris’ character; his cynicism, and his University education. He thinks in complex sentences with a complex and self-aware vocabulary.
- “As he straightened up after putting his father’s ashes inside the cabinet, longed so much to be with Scott that it almost hurt.” (20)
– Chris’s conflictions over his relationship with his father and his failed homosexual relationship with Scott are very closely bound, and this association is particularly strong in this sentence, explicitly linking the two ideas. The story can be read on one level as an exploration of what it means to be male, and the turmoil Chris feels over not being “manly” in the way his father envisaged him..
- “The words rage in his head, smoking like acid in behind his clamped mouth.” (27)
– Kennedy employs a powerful image of “smoking” words “clamped” behind Chris’ mouth to metaphorically represent his emotional repression.
- “And it’s not as if you have a wife and children at home waiting, is it?” (28)
– The longstanding resentments of Chris’s family – at least in his mind, for this line is from an imagined, future conversation with his mother – lead back to his homosexuality. However, the “morose passivity” of his father, describes on pages 26 and 27, suggest that part of his father’s resentment is due to his own failure to be a stereotypically successful head of the family.
- “He can’t believe this is all that’s left, this dust and grit…” (32)
– ‘Ashes to ashes, dust to dust’ from the Book of Common Prayer. This passage reflects the Christian view of human life as a temporary, earthly state – the body is merely crude matter – and the afterlife as the true beginning of life. In Ashes, Chris reflects on the brevity of life, and the fact that we are all destined to turn to dust and ash, and he asks himself why he could not have been a little more patient with his father while he was still alive.
- “…without interrupting her, he brushes it off.” (33)
– In Like a House on Fire, small and seemingly inconsequential physical acts take on an immense significance, as a symbol of connection and love. Chris brushing the ash from his mother’s shoulder is one example of this.
Laminex and Mirrors
- “The smell will stay hanging on me all day, burned and stale…” (36)
– Kennedy brackets the first (and what is implied to be the last) day of the narrator’s hospital job with cigarettes.
- “Feel like that thing’s choking me.” (38)
– Entrapment is a common motif in Like a House on Fire, and is presented in a physical, literal depiction in Moreton, who cannot move.
- “You can’t tell if she’s pretty or not because of the swelling and bruising…” (39)
– The rhinoplasty patients appear as a sharp contrast to Moreton; one with (presumably) lung cancer, and the others undergoing elective surgery in order to fit into society’s stringent beauty standards. Both stand as examples of the many and varied ways that individuals can be pressured into or trapped within physical or social frameworks.
- “But it’s about to be demolished.” (45)
– The petty order from the matron for the narrator to clean a bathroom which will be demolished in a week is an example of the pointlessness the narrator feels in her job.
- “There’s nothing to it in the end, just a steadying grip to help lift him up and over the rim.” (51)
– In one of many powerful moments of physical touch representing emotional connection, the narrator lifts Moreton from the bath.
- “…in the no-man’s-land of the hospital’s thermostatically cool interior, its sterilised world of hard surfaces…” (56)
– The cold inhumanity of the hospital is a sharp contrast to the utterly reckless but poignant act of rebellion by the narrator. In this story, the hospital with its rules and regulations takes on the role of a physical entity which entraps the characters; in other stories, characters are trapped by less tangible forces.
- “Christine had fantasies when the kids were babies…” (58)
Christine’s fantasies of a “clean and wholesome” house with polite and loving children has given way to the more mundane realities of family life. As with many characters in Like a House on Fire, she must learn to reconcile expectations with reality, and learn that there is no such thing as a perfect family.
- “Everything, on the contrary, seems to be teetering on the verge of coming apart.” (63)
Christine’s exhausting experience of a domestic life forever on the verge of collapse is a reflection of the randomness of life in Like a House on Fire. Many characters find themselves in situations where they can barely cope with dramatic changes or disasters in their lives.
- “But he’s so vague, that’s the trouble, so blind to how much organising she has to do around him to keep it all running.” (64)
Christine’s frustration at her husband, who is not a bad man as such but just “vague,” is typical of the pent-up frustrations and resentments which characterise family life in the short-story anthology.
- “She feels the ardent rush of helpless, terrible love.” (65)
In Tender, the shadow of the narrator’s own mortality throws the mixed emotions of her family life into relief, including irritation at her thoughtless husband and intense “helpless” love for her children.
Like a House on Fire
- “They are eyes, it strikes me, that are all too familiar with endlessly compromised plans, as if life is already revealing itself to her as a long trail of small disappointments and changeable older brothers.” (76)
The narrator, albeit with a light ironic tone, hits upon a central theme of the anthology when he describes his young daughter as already becoming aware of the “long trail of small disappointments” which characterise life. “Compromised plans” – or visions, or goals – are common throughout the anthology.
- “…just to make sure I well and truly kill the occasion now that I’ve poisoned it.” (77)
The narrator’s faintly comic, self-mocking tone reveals his nascent sense of shame and guilt at being so debilitated and helpless before is children.
- “…and that’s the extent of how we communicate these days, in the tiny squeezed and inflamed gap somewhere between slippage and rupture.” (79)
Like the image of Frank’s emotions pouring out of a “strongbox” in Flexion, this image metaphorically locates the relationship between Clair and her husband in the context of his damaged body.
- “Well, it can’t be helped,’ she says, and there it is, the sound of everything she’s really talking about, echoing in the big, hollow silence under her words.” (86).
As when the narrator imagines a string of rebukes he would never actually say to his wife, he imagines “everything she’d really talking about” when she answers him bluntly. Close relationships between characters in the collection are frequently communicated non-verbally, illustrating the depth of connection humans can create between one another.
- “Definition of psychosomatic: something originating in the mind or the emotions rather than through a physical cause.” (88)
The narrator’s definition of psychosomatic pain as something “originating in the mind or the emotions” echoes much of his own sense of shame and paranoia, which is largely due to his own sense of guilt rather than genuine resentment on the part of his family.
- “….and I reach up to pull the elastic band and grips out of her hair.” (93)
Like many of the stories in the collection, Like a House on Fire ends with a symbolic moment of physical connection between to characters, suggesting a deeper connection which is capable of surviving the difficulties life throws at them.
- “The person she’d been before the birth, in fact, seems like a dopey, thickheaded version of who she’s become now.” (102)
Whereas most of the characters in the first half of the anthology find themselves reconnecting in the wake of trauma or sudden change, Michelle finds herself finally accepting that she cannot rely on Des for anything.
- “She couldn’t believe she’d ever needed him for anything.” (104)
In Five-Dollar Family and later, in Seventy-two Derwents, Kennedy presents the bond between mother and child as infinitely more fulfilling than that between a woman and a “useless” man.
- “First one thing, and then another thing, and the click when it happens, like a door opening.” (105)
Michelle’s description of the way in which the birth of her child led to an important sense of finality about Des echoes the structure of many stories in the collection, where a sudden change or trauma leads to an epiphany.
- “Felt herself as indulgent and forgiving and tolerant as his mother, like it was a club women belonged to.” (108)
Michelle’s notion of the “club women belonged to” is a powerful example of the way in which women are trapped by society – in this case, through their emotional attachment to manipulative and uninspiring men.
- “There’s a short film looping in my head” (120)
The narrator, like many characters in the collection, is a victim of her own fantasies, which threaten to distance her dangerously from the real world.
- “It’s amazing, isn’t it, the level to which we’ll invent what we need.” (125)
The narrator of Cross-Country, like Chris’ mother in Ashes, fulfils her desires in part by imagining a world in which they are met. For the narrator, this means imagining her ex-husband ringing her in the night, whilst for Chris’ mother it means imagining a version of the past in which her son and husband enjoyed a fulfilling relationship.
- “…my face cools as if lifted to a merciful and unexpected breeze.” (125)
The narrator of Cross-Country is one of the starkest examples of a character who is trapped by their own mind and their own fantasies. It is implied that the narrator of this story is, however, eventually set free by a “merciful” revelation.
- “Ray was stuck in traffic” (127)
Ray’s physical state at the opening of the story is a metaphor for his emotional and mental state of paralysis or, as he puts it, “the lethargic kind of trance he’d felt himself lapsing into more and more recently.”
- “…passing another man who was pretending to be doing a job of work, bored shitless and leaning on a one-word sign.” (129)
Ray’s appraisal of the road worker reflects his own exhausted view of life as consisting of pointless drudgery, a feeling shared by the narrator of Cross-Country.
- “Frank, who hadn’t worked for fourteen months.”
Kennedy explores the social effects of underemployment and poverty in Sleepers, charting the collapse of Ray’s life, and depicting various male characters who seem to struggle to find work and are reduced to petty theft and drink.
- “His mind swam over this bit…” (136)
Like many of Kennedy’s characters, Ray blurs the line dangerously between fantasy and reality, and his fate in Sleepers suggests that Kennedy is highly critical of this approach to life.
- “…hauled up and discarded but with so much life in it, still, it just broke your heart to see it go to waste” (139)
The final comment on the redgum is clearly metaphorical for the state of Ray and many of the underemployed men in the unnamed town who can feel their lives draining away.
- “I can’t send one of these – every one’s a disaster.” (142)
The mother in Whirlpool, like many characters is the collection, is obsessed with a fantasy of her family, and feels compelled to project an impossibly perfect image of them – even, ironically, as the pressure she applies actually puts strain on that same family.
- “You hover there clenched, rooted to the spot.” (143)
The description of Anna, silent and “rooted to the spot” as she listens to her mother, suggests that she is yet another character who feels a strong sense of alienation and paralysis, brought about by her sense of distance from her own family.
- “You’re barely twelve, you’re nowhere near old enough for that.” (147)
Anna’s mother’s obsession with envisaging an ideal family results in her denying reality, such as the fact that her daughter is maturing physically and emotionally. This denial of reality results in a sense of alienation and paranoia in Anna.
- “You’re all touching and it feels weird.” (150)
Unlike in many other stories in the collection, where physical connection is symbolic of emotional connection, Anna finds the proximity to her family discomforting and intrusive.
- “…grim with the need to plot exile and allegiance…” (153)
The schemes of “exile and allegiance” constantly gyrating in Anna’s mother’s head suggest that for Kennedy the family unit is as much a place of tension and division as it is love and unity.
- “She senses, as they nod and smile, that this is not the answer they want.” (161)
Like many of the stories in Like a House on Fire, Cake demonstrates Kennedy’s keen interest in the minutia of social interactions, and particularly the way thoughts and feelings are conveyed non-verbally.
- “I don’t understand why this whole process hasn’t worked out like I thought, like I said it would on my grant project description.” (191)
The narrator, like many characters in Like a House on Fire, must come to terms with reality as it is, rather than as she imagines it should be, or as it is idealistically depicted in “grant descriptions” and other such bureaucratic paraphernalia.
- “…I feel two arms on either side of me, stretching tentatively round my waste, drawing me tighter, and in spite of everything I smile.” (195)
Like many stories in the collection, White Spirit closes on an image of physical connection, which temporarily breaks through the narrator’s sense of alienation.
Little Plastic Shipwreck
- “You fucking do it.” (207)
Like the narrator of Laminex and Mirrors, Roley finds a small degree of comfort and release in a small act of defiance, placing his principles above his economic needs.
- “Her hand there for comfort. Warmth and pulse flowing between us, skin to skin.” (213)
In Waiting, the cold and clinical hospital is made human through physical human connection – a motif which appears time and again in Like a House on Fire.
- “…lips closed and chin raised like a model of cool serenity, a perfected study of herself.” (226)
Marie, like many of Kennedy’s characters, obsesses over a perfect, unattainable image of herself. This is often reflected in the myth of the perfect family, as in Static, where a group of people who clearly dislike each other must play at happy families for the occasion.
- “Why indeed? Why is he pandering to the domineering old harridan?” (231)
One of Kennedy’s many flashes of humour, this line illustrates the absurdity of the fictions which characters create and maintain in order to survive.
- “Does she love him? She lets him see her in the morning without make-up, does that count?” (233)
Anthony’s bitingly ironic tone skewers the level of artifice and make-believe which characterises his life, suggesting that allowing him to see her without make-up is the closest thing to genuine affection Marie shows him.
- “Maybe that’s why Shane comes over to our place to have a shower and get changed.” (250)
Kennedy creates an almost unbearable sense of tension in Seventy-Two Derwents through Tyler’s innocent and naïve child voice. The dramatic irony, whereby the reader can see that Shane is a despicable character long before the narrator can, helps build a sense of dread.
- “I’m right behind you, Ty. Right here.” (275)
Throughout the collection, there are occasional hints of a sort of female solidarity, of women characters who bond through the ineptitude of the men in their lives. It is most vividly portrayed in the set-piece at the end of Seventy-Two Derwents, of three girls and women standing up to a violent male.
- “I kept writing mine these holidays so that you will know you were right.” (277)
The collection ends with a powerful affirmation of the power of literature, and an image of Tyler collecting the budgie’s egg, suggesting hope and renewal. The overall effect is to affirm the power of art and literature to provide solace and hope.