ONCE IN A HOUSE OF FIRE by Andrea Ashworth


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A young Englishwoman’s tactile memoir of growing up amid economic hardship and violent dysfunction. Ashworth’s Maltese father drowned in the 1970s when the author was five years old. On the playground, as a dark-skinned girl with her father’s Mediterranean blood, Ashworth (currently a fellow at Oxford) was called a foreigner, a “Bloody Paki.” This self-portrait is stylistically fresh, written in short, cinematic bursts of memory, its strengths in its physical detail: images of her mother stewing her little sister’s dirty nappies in the kitchen, her evening-arriving stepfather’s key rattle and boot brush and scrape on the front doormat. But the story of abuse she tells is an ancient one. Even when the author was a child, through the family’s move to Canada and then, later, back to England and eventually Manchester, her mother was wearing sunglasses to hide the bruises Ashworth’s stepfather gave her. While Ashworth’s mother was conflicted over her tormentor, her daughter wondered why she continued to see the man and to live her life for him. Ashworth’s tame descriptions of adolescent rituals that include experimenting with boys seem mundane compared to her volcanic home life, where her stepfather is always ready to go off and throttle her or her mother. He eventually leaves and is replaced in her mother’s affections by Terry, or “Tez,” a small-time criminal who brings in lots of money until he’s hauled off to prison. Returned, he too displays a pugilistic streak, until eventually her mother is hospitalized by her injuries and they separate as the author prepares for her liberating “flight” to Oxford and a university education. At one point Ashworth, who excels in school and learns to appreciate Austen, Hardy, Larkin, and Plath, imagines how she might use the words she reads to defend herself from Tez, how she might carry a “beautiful sting.” Her literary debut carries both—the beauty and the sting.

Pub Date: May 7th, 1998
ISBN: 0-8050-5762-5
Page count: 329pp
Publisher: Henry Holt
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 15th, 1998