Two sentences into Bonnie-Sue Hitchcock’s The Smell of Other People’s Houses and I thought to myself – this is not the book for me. It opens with a vivid description of dismembering a recently shot deer, and a small child being brought “a still-warm deer heart” in a bowl. Luckily I didn’t have to read on too much further to realise that this story was about much more than hunting, and is both a fascinating snapshot of 1970s Alaska and a powerful examination of teenage pregnancy; family; society; judgement, and forgiveness.
The book is a coming of age story told from four different teenage viewpoints: Ruth, raised by her stern Catholic grandmother; Dora, living with a loving family that is not her own and haunted by the abuse she was raised with; Alyce, torn between her dreams of dancing and not losing touch with her estranged fisherman father; and Hank, who has led his brothers to run away from home to protect them as a family. Looming over everything is the coming of age of Alaska itself – recently granted statehood, with ingrained class and racial divides (Alaska has more than 200 different native tribes). The epic scale of this wild place – where eking out a living can be brutally difficult; rivers burst their banks and sweep away towns; car journeys can take weeks; whole fishing fleets can be wiped out in one storm – gives extra poignancy to the human suffering in this story. In a world where everything can be washed away at any moment, how do we know what to hold on to? The importance of a smell; a touch; one red ribbon; one bunch of wildflowers or a homemade pie when they are such tiny things amid vast coldness is heart-breaking.
This is not a book with a religious focus per say, but Ruth’s story has some of the best reflections of being raised Catholic I have read outside the Irish setting: “’How did you get them all to believe it was a virgin birth?’ I ask her, but of course she doesn’t answer. I notice that her eyes are cast off to the side, as if to deflect questions like this from girls like me”. The lives of the leads weave together cleverly, and the first person viewpoint allows us to see new facets of all the characters. Tiny offhand observances relating to the title reveal a multitude – Ruth’s house smells of “mould in second-hand furniture…guilt and sin” to her, but when Dora visits it smells so overwhelmingly of cleaning products that she doesn’t know how to be comfortable in a house so well cared for. It’s difficult to do justice to this nuanced debut – this is a totally absorbing, beautiful book that you should read and discover for yourself.
I recieved a copy of this book from Faber & Faber via Netgalley in return for an impartial review. Buy The Smell of Other People’s Houses online, or available in bookstores now.