The Paper House by Anna Spargo-Ryan
Australian Women Writers Challenge,  Book Reviews

The Paper House by Anna Spargo-Ryan

My heart fell out on a spring morning…

~ The Paper House by Anna Spargo-Ryan

Grief is an ever present theme in Australian literature. We are a nation of writers fascinated by either lack or loss. That, in itself, intrigues me. And it intrigues me that much like Anna’s opening line here, that we never run out of ways to twist and use language to be able to describe so well the nuances of the nature of that grief.

The Paper House by Anna Spargo-Ryan
The Paper House by Anna Spargo-Ryan

And language and the use of it is what strikes me so immediately with The Paper House. This is Anna’s first book, one she has worked on for ages, one that has seen a lot of back and forth between her father, herself, friends and editors and perhaps that has helped fine tune the words because fine tuned they are indeed. Tweaked to perfection, the few lucky fans reading advance copies (you can even read about Anna’s reaction to receiving them including what she wore to chase down the delivery guy) or the excerpt of the first ten pages on Seizure Online, have no option but to react in rather visceral ways, taking to Twitter to let her know:

Anna kindly sent me a PDF version to read and I delved into in lunch breaks at work, in the interruptions between bouts of sleep on some nights and generally any time I had a pint of ice cream and wished to procrastinate.

The doctor came in and I lay my uterus down on the bench and she ran the machine over the top of it, but I already knew, and we already knew, and I put my hand to the purple organ crying on the bench and it sighed and wept against my skin.
~ The Paper House by Anna Spargo-Ryan

This is a book about miscarriages, mothers and mental health. It’s a book about wanting to be a mother, to nurture and care, to not feel left behind, left out, left alone by doing so and then to feel wretchedly on the outside as your chance to mother is absent rather than present because no one else knows what it feels like but they all think that they do.

And you think what can you do? Anna uses language well to communicate the sense of shock at what has happened with the clinical objectivity of never saying her lost child’s name, the funeral glossed over, the silence in response often to others and questions.

And then later, she uses it to tell us the stories that Heather tells us, of paintings made together with her mother, of the way her mother checked in and out of hospital for mental health issues, of the things that occurred in childhood, of the drawings she makes now hiding them from Dave her partner, of her loss of her mother, of the person living at the bottom of the garden, of her new neighbours rallying around her, a stranger.

Bit by bit, flitting back and forth between present day Heather and childhood Heather, Anna uses language to show us that perhaps after all, Heather isn’t seeing things clearly. Family members show up with their own versions of events and while Dave is connected into the community unlike Heather, others tell her that no one notices those who care for those who are sick and both sides of the story have truth to them. Heather’s flawed view also makes her the only one to question the strangeness of her neighbour’s life, the contradiction between the story told and the reality lived.

And throughout it all, you see and feel the sadness but it doesn’t overwhelm you to the point where you cannot read further. This isn’t a book that makes a nuisance of itself, flooding you with the nature of grief – it’s a book that makes you invite it in, offer it tea and have a chat before you flood yourself with the amazement of how it manages to convey the fact that grief is individual and weird and precious and always valid be it for mothers, kids or horses.

Which is why we keep writing about grief. Why we keep striving to understand how we process loss and also lack when we grieve for things we have never had. And with The Paper House, Anna shows us how the act of a miscarriage leaves us in a limbo land where we are grieving both the loss of someone and something that once was and someone and something that we will never get to experience or have at the same time.

Anna Spargo-Ryan’s The Paper House is published by Picador Australia and will be out on 31st May 2016. You can pre-order copies from Readings, Booktopia and from Picador as well. You can also read the first ten pages at Seizure Online.

And if you are keen on odd cats, mental health and all things wacky and writing related you can tweet at Anna too.

Marisa is a globetrotting freelance writer, journalist and editor with cat for hire (her, not the cat). She is usually based in Melbourne but is currently flouncing around in Perth for a week for the Inaugural 2018 KSP - Varuna Foundation Fellowship. She will be at Melbourne's Continuum and online running a Writers' Bloc course in the coming weeks.

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