For those called to testify before the House Select Committee to Investigate Covert Arms Transactions, Iran-Contra was an affair to remember. To Karen Olsson—a teenager at the time—the scandal and resultant investigation all seemed rather nebulous.
“It’s one of those things that lurks on the fringes of your memory, because it happened before I was quite old enough to be aware of it and interpret it in an adult way,” Olsson says. “I was in ninth grade, and I knew other people who were even younger than that were watching the Iran-Contral scandal, but probably I was trying to watch One Life to Live, and the programming was interrupted. I wasn’t a young political junkie.”
Olsson brings an adult understanding to bear on Iran-Contra in her assured second novel, All the Houses.
One Saturday morning in 1986, two young FBI agents visit the home of Timothy Atherton, a deputy assistant secretary in the State Department—“a source orbiting close to the sun”—whose implication in the scandal redraws his family’s lives. The narrative effortlessly moves between that time and 2004, when middle daughter Helen returns home to aid her father, now divorced, after his heart attack.
Lately a flailing Hollywood screenwriter, Helen is perpetually between projects and preoccupied by the past—particularly her father’s part in the storied scandal. In an attempt to understand him, and discover a new direction for her own life, Helen proposes to write the definitive Iran-Contra book.
“My unofficial investigation would seek to discover what they said to each other and what they didn’t say, the husbands and wives and fathers and children. My own final report on the matter would detail what they were able to let go of, eventually, and what continued to rankle or haunt, what they bore for years and years, after everyone else had forgotten almost everything, after their disgrace became a footnote,” Olsson writes.
Dredging the past proves painful, fateful, and funny. As she proceeds with her historical project, Helen’s interactions with her sisters—Courtney, the oldest, perfect daughter with the good husband and good job; and Maggie, the youngest, an overworked liberal arts professor and family empath—provide All the Houses with its securest source of levity:
“Honestly I don’t think the public really gives a crap,” Courtney said.
“But this goes back to what you were saying in the car,” [Maggie] began, looking at me, then turning to address Courtney, “We need to know the real story, even if nobody gives a crap—especially if nobody gives a crap! Like, nobody gives a crap about Iran-Contra, which is why Helen’s writing a book about it.”
That wasn’t quite right. I wanted to say as much, and I wanted to say that more people cared about Iran-Contra than about early Tudor drama, though I didn’t know it for a fact.
That Olsson cannily captures sibling rivalry and relationships should come as no surprise: she’s the oldest of four. Like the Atherton sisters, they did grow up in Washington, D.C.—but that’s where the similarities cease, she stresses.
“My own family is not involved in any political scandal, my parents are married, I’m the oldest of four siblings—it’s not a direct sort of translation of my family onto the page,” she says. “I do think about 80 percent of what I know about family comes from my family, so the conflicts among the sisters are based on me having conflicts with my sisters, but the characters aren’t us. I think the relationships and feelings are more autobiographical than the details of the characters.”
It’s details Helen craves—as though knowing the movements and motivations behind the scandal’s scenes might somehow free her family from its emotional burden.
“What happens to a family that has a brush with this public event, but long after the news media has moved on, it’s still wounded by it?” Olsson asks. “In part, I’m drawn to trying to puzzle out our relationships to these public events and, in part, I think a lot of us have a certain level of shame that we carry about our so-called family of origin, even if there wasn’t something horrible that happened—just a kind of lingering, what was that about? was that okay?—these things you can’t even quite articulate, but at some point in your adulthood you have to confront.”
Megan Labrise writes “Field Notes” and features for Kirkus Reviews.