Kathleen Hill’s finely wrought novel tells the story of four generations of an Irish-American family that has lived in the same house for almost a century. Grieving the death of her mother and the imminent sale of the house, the narrator sets out to re-create the hidden, intimate lives of those who came before. Through a series of vignettes she conjures a family devastated in each generation by the loss of a child.
The narrator’s project, inspired at the outset by silences that extend backward to the untold story of the Famine, turns into a vast exploration of loss, inheritance, and the nature of memory. In a voice both stark and lyrical, the narrator calls up transformative, often tragic, moments in lives that have shaped her own. Remembering a past she never knew, she hopes to release from its sway the vanishing present.
Who Occupies This House is a strikingly beautiful account of the difficult reckoning with one’s family legacy that every adult faces. Punctuated by photographs and images that bring the narrative into sharp focus, it will draw comparisons to such divergent writers as W.G. Sebald and Kate O’Brien.
|Publisher:||Northwestern University Press|
|Product dimensions:||6.20(w) x 9.10(h) x 0.90(d)|
About the Author
Kathleen Hill teaches in the M.F.A. Program at Sarah Lawrence College. Her novel Still Waters in Niger (Northwestern, 1999) was named a Notable Book by the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and the Chicago Tribune, and the French translation was shortlisted for the Prix Femina Etranger. It was also nominated for an IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. Her stories have appeared in Best American Short Stories, Pushcart Prize XXV, and The Pushcart Book of Short Stories.
Read an Excerpt
Who Occupies This HouseA Novel
By Kathleen Hill
NORTHWESTERN UNIVERSITY PRESSCopyright © 2010 Kathleen Hill
All right reserved.
Chapter OneInmates of the Air
Of nearness to her sundered Things
A coral necklace, white, with a gold clasp. We had always thought coral was pink, but no, this coral is the color of eggshells. The beads are round, like pearls, and in size grow from the size of a pea to twice that where they must have hung between her breasts.
An ivory knife she used to open letters or cut the pages of a book: along the upper edge of the blade, a string of elephants lumbering toward the pointed tip.
And last, a little gold watch with spidery roman numerals and hands that point.
These are the objects Deirdre left behind. When we ask where the ivory knife came from, Kate says she's not sure, perhaps it was her mother's. She keeps the knife on her desk, using it to slit an envelope along the top long after everyone else rips open their mail with their fingers.
Objects, that was all. We, Kate's children, grew up in a house where a woman had lived and died, then disappeared without anyone's being able to say a word about her. She was neither mentioned nor made a character in a story nor spoken of as having been this kind of person or that. She was nobody's anything—Kate's mother only by name; our grandmother, not even that. No one would ever have thought to say to us, "your grandmother." Her name was never pronounced: Deirdre.
Daybreak in January: the hoarse blast of the foghorn carried on a southeasterly wind, conjuring black rocks shrouded in mist, boats rocking in the icy waters of the Long Island Sound. But for us, the children sleeping in the house in Pelham, the lonely sound of the horn is the muffled boom of the house itself, a long breath exhaled.
A little later the fierce knocking in the coils of the radiators, the spit and hiss of steam escaping from silver valves, the commotion of scalding water coursing through pipes: the struggle to remove the chill, to warm the place up a little. Water at the boil rising from cellar to kitchen and downstairs hall where Bert, our father, is shrugging on his coat before leaving for work, into the rooms upstairs where, shivering, we were getting dressed for school.
But all that clanging and banging, that rush of steam condensing in the cold air, if we stopped for a moment and listened, fell like the echo of other winter mornings, the echo of other rumblings heard long ago by those who'd lived in the same spaces before us, sounds we might listen for but never quite catch.
Always the sense of other hands on the banisters, other feet on the stairs; that we were living only to repeat what others had known firsthand, our lives a pale reflection of what had gone before.
The hickory tree still stands beside the house, shading the screened porch that runs along the south side. The tree must now be at least seventy feet tall, twice as high as the house. The lowest branches reach toward the three dormer windows that extend in a shining row beneath the slate roof. But this was not always the case. The tree must have been half its present size when Kate, five years old, moved into the house she would never leave.
Standing in the pachysandra beneath the tree in springtime, staring up at the shaggy dark underside of the bark spotted with moss, we know that the others have taken it in before: the whole dizzying length of trunk to the branches at the top. There in a high wind the branches are tossing and rolling, leaves are flung in and out of the sun. They blow open to let in a sky streaked with watery light. The sky is the element in which the branches move, it is the silence in which they flail and tumble. Against the thrashing of the branches, the silence is something to listen for. It is the motion of the tree that makes it possible to hear the silence waiting on the other side of things.
Those others, a generation before us; ourselves, now. Kate was the link, Kate who once had been a child among them, who had been one of those now gone: Deirdre and Willie, her parents, and the little sister Grace.
Of Deirdre we know almost nothing. Of Willie, a little. First of all, by the objects he too has left behind: books shelved on the landing, in the hall, volumes with dusty jackets whose titles we can barely make out on the backs of their spines:
Parnell's Faithful Few, Margaret Leamy
Famine, Liam O'Flaherty
Deirdre of the Sorrows, J. M. Synge
The Man Called Pearse, Desmond Ryan
The Angler's Guide to the Irish Free State, Ministry of Fisheries
Representative Irish Tales, compiled with an introduction and notes, W. B. Yeats
Kate takes down a book from a high shelf and shows us the title: The Interpreters: The Candle of Vision, A.E. She opens the book to the flyleaf on which has been written, in an inky scrawl: Constance Markiewicz from her friend A.E. 25. October. 28. The stem of the E leans sharply backwards against the A.
Or: A Book of Saints and Wonders, Lady Gregory. This last one is inscribed, again in ink:
To Theodore Spier-Simon from A. Gregory—at Coole, where the memory of these Saints still dwells—May 17, 1922
Kate tells us these books along with the others were acquired by her father, Willie, over many summers on the fishing trips to Ireland he began making almost immediately afterwards. By "afterwards" we understand her to mean after the death of her mother.
Of Course – I prayed – And did God Care?
In the stories told by Kate, stories featuring Willie, Deirdre figured always as the missing one: Deirdre, the woman dying upstairs; Deirdre, the woman dead. Take Kate's account of one summer's morning, a morning it seemed we might recall ourselves if only we tried hard enough.
Yet how could we have known it? We weren't even born in 1923. But the long-ago people in the story had been assembled that morning on the same porch where we were scattered decades later listening to Kate pick words out of the air, the same screened porch where summer after summer—against the rattle of passing trains, the horn at the fire station hiccuping at noon and at six—Charlie and Maddie and I whiled away the hours, elbows dug into a glossy straw floor mat, staring at a Monopoly board, at tiny red houses placed on Boardwalk or Park Place.
It was there that Kate, sixteen years old, and her younger sister, Grace, had been told that very soon the awful door should spring. They had sat in the same wicker chairs we pushed aside to make room for our bare legs, had sat there one Sunday morning in July, gathered solemnly by their father on their return from Mass. He had something to tell them, he said, and he knew they would ask God's help in their hour of need.
It might be, he asked, that they still held out some hope? Of course by "hope" they knew he meant that the woman upstairs—by turns shaking the bed with chills, soaking the sheets with sweat—this woman, their mother, would survive her terrible ordeal. But no, it was his painful duty to tell them it did not seem that the will of God was to be accomplished in that way. He sat there in the rocking chair, one leg crossed over the other, propelling himself back and forth, to give them the facts. Their mother was suffering from Hodgkin's disease and the doctors believed she would not recover. None of the remedies known to them—blood transfusions, arsenic placed in the veins, radium applied to glands in the throat—had brought the return to health they'd hoped for.
Kate, listening, had gazed through the screens into the rhododendron bushes that ran the length of the porch—or so she might have, we were free to imagine anything we liked—into the bushes that shaded our long afternoons. Rhododendrons as refuge. Anywhere to avoid the sight of Willie's blue eyes that swam alarmingly behind the magnifying lenses he wore, pince-nez, his flat, sensitive fingers thrumming the wicker arm of his chair. As Kate sits with her feet hooked around the legs of a chair in the silence that follows Willie's announcement, thinking nothing, feeling nothing, the shrill note of a cicada lifts in the late morning air, holds for a long moment of shattering intensity, and falls back into silence.
Had Willie been with them at Mass that morning or had he been to another? Had he knelt beside them under the window dedicated to St. Catherine and her spiked wheel? St. Catherine, hair waving back from her face like a Botticelli angel's, green robe struck by the sun to a glassy emerald blaze.
The wheel is intended to be the instrument of her torment. But see how she is unharmed, see how her hand rests lightly on its highest point. As if the wheel had been her plaything, as if she might, at a whim, tap it into motion, whirl it down a hill.
Willie is at a loss. Sitting there with his daughters on either side of him, disconcerted that the announcement he has prepared so carefully has been greeted without question or any show of grief, he is uncertain what to do next. Impulsively—wanting to shock these stony-faced daughters into some display of feeling—he decides to tell them a story he has confided to no one, a story he had earlier determined that under no circumstances they should hear. He comments, by way of preamble, that he is sure their mother's illness had been a sad surprise to them all.
And yet, he says, looking from one to another, at Kate with her dark eyebrows drawn together, green eyes staring off into the rhododendrons, at Grace hugging her elbows, flaxen hair falling around her lowered chin, their mother herself had not been surprised. She had seen her death approaching even before she had fallen ill. Yes, they might be interested to hear that she had known it all from the first, before anyone else could perceive the slightest sign.
A little more than a year ago, on her birthday, April Fools' Day, he had woken and first thing reached over to wish her many happy returns of the day. That was the expression he used, Kate said: "Many happy returns of the day." But instead of looking pleased, Deirdre had suddenly sat upright in bed and burst into tears. "In a year I'll be dead," she had told him, "and not a soul will have known what ails me."
Willie had tried to laugh it off, had called her his April Fool. But she would have none of it. And now see. There had been only one return, and that one had not been happy.
Hopeless, the muddle of what Kate tells us and what we imagine.
Fact: The announcement, made in July of 1923, that their mother would be dead within a month.
Fact: Willie's story of her prevision, of her appalling knowledge.
Fact: Her death three weeks after the announcement on the porch.
But all the rest is made up, invented from bits and scraps, conjecture, shaky interpretation, and certainly some prejudice against Willie, who is the only one of that generation we ever met, appearing—before he too was removed by death—long enough to figure as a creature who would point a finger at a child playing on the floor and ask her if she was a good girl, ask her if she was not a trouble to her mother, who would hide a penny in a fist held behind his back and ask her to guess what was in it.
Is it true that we were scattered about in the same wicker chairs—listening to Kate relate to us some version or other of this story—where she and Grace had sat that July morning? We may have been, but it scarcely matters. The hard back of the rocking chair where Maddie or I might in turn spend a morning reading, pushing ourselves back and forth with one bare foot, was felt along our spines, against our skin. And so it must have been felt along Willie's as he sat motionless, trying to compel his daughters' tears. He had sat in the chair, one leg crossed over the other, watch chain lying across the smooth white linen of his waistcoat, the last button alone undone because even on the hottest days of summer he will not appear in shirt sleeves: Willie Conroy the banker, and quite a successful one at that, who when he was a boy in the Mohawk Valley picked strawberries at daybreak to sell for a few cents to the shops.
While Willie and his daughters are sitting downstairs on the porch, each waiting to be released from this moment, the woman they're talking about is upstairs shaking violently from a chill. She is also tortured by thirst, and the bed is pitching from side to side upon a restless sea. At first it had been rocking gently, reminding her that a soothing hand is looking out for her comfort and release. But soon enough the pitch and fall of the waves grows more intense until she fears being tumbled over the side. A fever, a delirium, and then over the top, over into the churning waters below.
The waves have risen on one side, then the other, she could feel the swell rising beneath and then the drastic fall. It had been like that, the pitch and drop, the plunge.
"Poor man," Kate always ends her story. "Now that I'm an adult, I'm able to imagine how hard that must have been for him. Left alone with two daughters. And of such a difficult age!"
But why should we imagine any such thing? It was the woman dying upstairs who invited compassion. It was Kate herself, and her younger sister, Grace, left motherless.
It was only the final exhortation, the plea for Willie, that moved Kate to energy. As for the rest, she spoke not as one who had been present, slouched in a clean middy blouse, dark brows drawn fiercely together, but as someone trying to recall a tale she had been taught to recite.
Safe Despair it is that raves – Agony is frugal
But Kate did not leap to this story. It was pried out of her like all the others. More likely, we pressed her and she declined.
"What was she like, your mother?" we asked from time to time, curious because we never heard a word. We'd forget the dead woman for months, even years, and then she'd suddenly fill the air. We had no name for her, this stranger who'd died upstairs in the room where Kate and our father, Bert, now slept. The phrase itself, "your mother," which we pronounced otherwise only in the company of friends when we wished to refer to their mothers, seemed to make of Kate someone our own age. Which of course we were asking her to become, the girl who had once lived in this house with a mother going up and down the stairs.
"I don't really remember," she said.
"You don't remember? But that's impossible! How could you not remember your own mother?"
"I must have some kind of a block," Kate replied. "I know it's odd, but I don't seem to remember her."
"But you were sixteen years old when she died! If you were to die now, don't you think we'd remember you?"
We were indignant as well as in sore need of reassurance. The present was even more precarious than we'd thought. We might like to think our mother was the one person on earth who could be relied on to keep us firmly in mind. But that was clearly wishful thinking.
"Well, I'm with you more. You know, she wasn't very well."
"What was wrong with her? She wasn't sick, was she? Not until that year before she died?"
"No." Kate was vague.
"Well, why wasn't she with you, then?"
"I don't think she was very strong."
"Why not? What was wrong with her?"
"Not after the death of that baby. You know, Grace's twin."
In the upstairs hall—above the shelves holding Parnell's Faithful Few and The Well of the Saints—hangs a photograph in a gold oval frame. A woman with glossy dark hair is sitting with head bowed, a newborn twin sleeping raptly in each arm. Her face is in shadow, she is gazing down at one of these babies. But which one? The one who is to die a year later, falling from a carriage onto her head? Or the one who has seventy years more to live? Kate, three years old, an enormous white ribbon in her hair, is pressed alongside, craning her neck to see.
When night comes this happy family group is illuminated by an electric bulb covered by a milky glass shade, a white porcelain tube swirling above. It is the same light that makes a sliver of reassurance beneath the bedtime door closed against the quick steps retreating down the stairs, the ring knocking on the banister.
The Sun and Moon must make their haste – The Stars express around
The nautical clock that sits on the bookcase just beneath the photograph of the man with the epaulettes and the sad eyes, its double pendulum weighted with mercury to preserve the balance needed for accurate measurement against the roll and pitch of the sea.
Excerpted from Who Occupies This House by Kathleen Hill Copyright © 2010 by Kathleen Hill. Excerpted by permission of NORTHWESTERN UNIVERSITY PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Troubling the Waters....................7
Inmates of the Air....................13
The Sheeted Dead....................43
Willie and Deirdre....................55
In the Despairing Hour of Life....................97
Whose Words Are These?....................105
John Carmody Has a Word or Two....................109
As for Rob....................149
In Search of Deirdre in Kilkee....................173
Willie in Gotham....................219
The Horn of the Hunter....................261
Wind of Wild Air....................279
Seeds of Brightness....................303
What People are Saying About This
"Who Occupies This House asks us, brilliantly, to consider and reconsider the long lines of suffering and the legacies of the past. But it is also a narrative of passion and faith and sweetness and long affections as the Conroys and the Carmodys seek and find their family. With fierce intelligence and lustrous prose Kathleen Hill takes the reader on a remarkable journey stretching from Ireland to America and back again. I was transported by this book."--(Margot Livesey, author of The House on Fortune Street)
"This is a novel of great beauty. Step by step, it works its way deep into the interior lives of vanished family, sifting through evidence to solve mysteries, re-judge sorrows, and think, over and over, about forgiveness. An intense, exacting, and extraordinary book."--(Joan Silber, author of Household Words and The Size of the World)
"Part history, and part hypothesis, Kathleen Hill’s family memoir is a lyrical evocation of three generations whose spirits live on in those dwelling places that they have loved. This is a haunted book in the best sense: these lives, these spirits, beautifully portrayed, will stay with you forever."--(Charles Baxter, author of The Soul Thief)