The Smell of Other People’s Houses by Bonnie-Sue Hitchcock

★★★★☆ (4/5)

What a marvelous debut novel! Sublime, crazy, genuine! It’s visceral and imaginative, brimming with poetry and life. “The Smell of Other People’s Houses” is a young-adult tale, set against the backdrop of 70’s Alaska – a territory unfamiliar to me as a reader which gives the story an even more dreamlike quality. It is narrated from different albeit interconnected perspectives of four teenagers – Ruth, Dora, Alyce and Hank and the novel is divided into four sections, corresponding to four weather systems – Summer, Spring, Autumn and Winter.

Ruth

Ruth, our first chronicler has been given the most narrative power. Orphaned at an early age, she lives with her Catholic grandmother along with her younger sister Lily. Gran instils in them stringent religious values which are often lost upon the young girls who aim to find their own way through life. In a household where every action is measured against the yardstick of religion, Ruth challenges these norms in her own little world. She is daring that way and despite her actions leading her into deep trouble, she emerges at the end as a fearless woman, having undergone the toughest of trials.

But as I get older, the words that seemed random and foreign then have grown more recognizable. I can now string them together like a family heirloom that hangs around my neck, almost strangling me. Words like rules, suffocating, serious, guilt, and sin

Dora

We laugh at the utter practicality of Dumpling’s parents, which makes me feel all warm inside until I get a whiff of something dark and smoky, like burnt toast, which I recognize as the smell of my family compared to hers. I wonder if a person can ever really shake where they come from.

Dora, another resident of Fairbanks, Alaska has an unfortunate history with a violent father and an inebriated mother. She takes refuge with her best friend Dumpling’s family who provide her with comfort and security, but Dora still feels unsafe, knowing well enough about her parents’ emotional selfishness and physical brutality. She is possessive of Dumpling as a friend and lets jealousy cloud her judgement. But at the end, Dora materialises as a woman of valour, putting aside personal resentments and defying her father’s subjugations.

At Dumpling’s you don’t have to look through shattered glass to see whose face it is, looking back out, warning you that the sound of glass breaking means it’s time to hide.

Alyce

Alyce, a child of divorce, lives with her mother in Fairbanks but often visits her father in summers during fishing season. She intends to escape the confines of the little town but being the only child, she is gravitated towards her parents, hoping to not disappoint either of them, all at the cost of sacrificing her passions. She longs to be a ballerina which conflicts with her desire of helping her dad on their fishing boat.

Hank

Hank the only male voice of the story, is the eldest of three brothers. Having lost their father only to come under the authority of an awful step-dad, the three brothers decide to run away from home. Much of the burden and responsibility of two younger brothers’ falls on the shoulders of Hank who does his best to protect and love them. Sam, the second brother, had a deep affinity with his father and Jack, the youngest of the lot has a keen sense of intuition of their father’s death and the events which unfold after they flee from home.

He knows more than any fourteen-year-old kid should know about people. It has the unfortunate effect of making me want to leap up and protect him all the time, because I don’t think the world knows what to do with people like Jack.

Insightful Prose

The lives of these four characters, along with a myriad of others, are all interconnected. Their lives unravel before us through the lens of masterfully crafted prose, enriching the readers’ experience. Ruth’s narration at first is loose, akin to any teenager in throes of angst. As the story progresses, sorrow and a deeper understanding of her whereabouts becomes evident. Her narration becomes more controlled and mature as she traverses the plains of childhood into adulthood.

He knew how to French-kiss, which tasted like a forest of promises once I got used to it

As a woman, having endured a tough choice of parting with her child, she begins to apprehend the adult world which had long perplexed her. Even in adolescence, her power of observation has no parallel. Through Ruth’s eyes we form an image of the infantile Lily, the stern Gran and the ever supportive best friend Selma.

Selma has these enormous brown eyes like a seal, and for whatever reason, she doesn’t feel bound by the same rules as the rest of us, which makes her a great friend

Selma smiles and waves good-bye, then links her arm with Alyce’s and I watch their shadows bob away under the yellow streetlights. How does Selma manage to break all the rules and still stay on everyone’s good side?

Despite her unfortunate familial situation, Dora’s narrative capabilities function towards internalizing external events in a brilliant fashion. She is wary of the money she wins at Ice Classic: “for one buck per ticket, people guess when the ice on the river is going to go out, and if they’re right, they win a load of cash”.

Alyce’s narrative prowess lies in her discernment of adults around her.

The chart he’s reading is creased from wear and there is Scotch tape holding it in spots that tore over time. Some of the bays on the chart are covered in coffee stains, or crusted with dried salt from my father’s wet gloves, the paper crinkled where it was gripped too tight during a storm.

Her chance encounter with Sam shows the degree of maturity of which Alyce is capable of despite the internal gulf of having to disappoint her dad to pursue dancing.

Hank’s narration provide the readers with full characterisation of his two younger brothers. He has a lot to tell, not about himself, but about his brothers.

For a second I wish I were Jack, who always sees the gossamer threads floating invisibly between people. They are so translucent, it’s no wonder most people don’t see them—or they bumble along and end up destroying them without ever knowing they existed.

I remember my dad saying that sometimes you can be inserted into another person’s life just by witnessing something you were never really supposed to be a part of…She was looking at me and then she just fell apart. Did I get inserted somehow into her story?

Vibrant Landscape

Reminiscent of Louise Erdrich’s Larose and Thomas Hardy’s The Return of the Native, where the setting assumes role of a significant character, altering and influencing the residents, the landscape of Alaska plays a resonant part in this story, prompting characters to move in and out of towns, affecting their life’s goals, transporting them from fatuity to sagacity, assisting them with healing old wounds and recuperating life with a fresh sense of life.

The village has its own version of telephones: silent messages waft through the air and hang over every house during a crisis, and every able-bodied person comes to help.

Complimented with change of seasons, Alaskan landscape is a tapestry on which Hitchcock weaves these beloved characters who undergo different experiences of happy or mournful accidents and renewals of relationships – all in order to better reconcile themselves with their differences and similarities.

I secretly love the way the cigarette smoke billows out the door and mixes with the ice fog

We navigate snowy terrains of a small town Fairbanks with Ruth and Dora, its residents mingled in a life of their own – sometimes dynamic, at other times just plain abhorrent. We travel the rough seas with Alyce, Hank and Sam, coming across new budding relationships and foggy realisations of truths.

The gunshot sound of ice breaking frightens me every single year. If the seasons bleed into each other like a watercolor painting, it means not enough fish and berries to last the winter, not enough wood chopped for the stove, not enough meat in the freezer

One of my favourite passages from the novel depicting winter season is from Dora’s narration. It is refreshing, rhythmic, replete with wonderful imagery.

One year winter came so fast and so hard, the leaves on the birch trees didn’t even have time to turn yellow and fall off; they froze solid green on the branches. They clung there for months on skinny skeleton arms, the color so blindingly wrong it was creepy

Alaska pervades the fabric of the novel through un-metalled, craggy roads, tender indigence of community lifestyle, visceral acts of hunting deer and fishing. We have Alyce fleeing from fishes whilst Sam soars towards the orcas almost drowning himself. We have Ruth cloistered in a nunnery, and Hank running buck naked through a forest. We have Dora disconcerted by an accident amidst her recollections on berries and weather.

The Aesthetics of Smell

They’re the same old smells: Lemon Pledge, Joy soap, and Hills Bros. coffee all jumbled together. But there’s one that catches me totally off guard. It’s the face cream that Gran has used every morning for as long as I’ve known her. “Sister Josephine’s milk-and-honey lotion,” I say. It’s the smell of two worlds colliding.

Olfactory senses come alive through this novel as sense of smell takes centre stage. Smell has been given a transformative power to enliven acute observations of the surroundings. The pungent smell of a fishing boat seeping into Alyce’s skin as she spends day in day out in water, the leathery scent of a charity shop as Dora seeks refuge, the heavy musk of soil from Dumpling’s family’s retreat, the aromatic whiffs of home cooked food, the fetid smell coming from a drunkard, all augment the novel with the title. Misplaced individuals find smells in stranger’s homes soothing. These noticeable odors can provide comfort or leave one reeling to nurse old wounds.

Does she look out at the lake and then go home with the smell of cedar in her hair?

The smell of alcohol on hot, putrid breath coming closer and closer as I hide my head under my pillow and wait for groping hands—so drunk they cannot even remember what they did the next morning.

Hitchcock truly captures teen voices embedded in a far-off land which appears to be mystical due to its anonymity for the casual reader. “The Smell of Other People’s Houses” is a novel of repression and childhood, of fractured families and ruptured relationships, of domestic violence and fortitude. All characters persevere through grief, only to emerge triumphant despite having lost innocence. It is poignant with a steely vein running across the spine of the book. Unwavering and lyrical, this novel is highly recommended!



Favorite excerpts

  • Her mother wraps dollar bills in foil and stores them in the freezer in case the house burns down.
  • Her mother is all pointy and angular, as if she was built by students in a remedial geometry class
  • But I don’t see her the same way I used to, either. She looks like nothing but an old beat-up raft, especially now that Sam is sitting next to her
  • The mud from her back tires spits me with gravel pellets if I get too close
  • “Bye, Ruth.” Her voice was so soft. It floated up the steps behind me like a tiny bird.
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