The Smell of Other People’s Houses by Bonnie-Sue Hitchcock (Faber and Faber Ltd, 2016) is the kind of book I will always make time for. I have been feeling a strange sort of nostalgia since finishing it, as if all my heart really wants is to return to Birch Park, Alaska, and to become re-absorbed into the lives of its residents.
Growing up in Alaska in the 1970s is shown to involve all the usual adolescent struggles, but with lower temperatures and more deeply-buried drama. Hitchcock’s novel focuses on abandoned Ruth, aspiring dancer Alyce, runaway Hank, and troubled Dora, who narrate alternating chapters here. The divided narrative is something I have started to grow tired of, but not here, because I genuinely cared deeply about all of these characters. Hitchcock does a sublime job of creating sympathetic back stories without overplaying the trauma, which lends each section intense authenticity and pathos. Hank and his brothers are a particularly touching creation, but there isn’t a voice in the novel that doesn’t subtly grab the reader’s emotions.
In my mission to read around the fifty states, I’ve rarely felt so enveloped by the descriptions of place as I did when reading The Smell of Other People’s Houses; Alaska is truly brought to life here, with references to the smell of cedar and, of course, the cold. It is no exaggeration to say that I had to cover myself in a blanket more than once while reading this book, such is the immersive power of Hitchcock’s depiction of the plunging temperatures of Alaska. The beauty of the scenery is undercut by a pervasive feeling of threat; while Alaska is something to be fought for, it must also be fought with, and the very survival of the characters is often in the background of their emotional stories.
If the seasons bleed into each other like a watercolour painting, it means not enough fish and berries to last the winter, not enough wood chopped for the stove, not enough meat in the freezer. One year winter came so fast and so hard, the leaves on the birch trees didn’t even have time to turn yellow and fall off; they froze solid green on the branches. They clung there for months on skinny skeleton arms, the colour so blindingly wrong it was creepy. Every year it’s a race between the seasons, and that year autumn lost.
Aside from the climate, The Smell of Other People’s Houses draws you in with its depiction of local color and tradition. I loved reading about the annual Ice Classic, in which locals bet on when the ice in the river will break, as well as the sections which took place at fish camps, something I had never even heard of before. Bonnie-Sue Hitchcock’s connection with Alaska and the more specific towns she describes is abundantly clear, creating an absorbingly authentic narrative. The book reads like a love letter to the 49th state, whose status as the Last Frontier is echoed in the insular and interconnected threads of the story. I wasn’t previously familiar with the history of Alaskan statehood and I found the brief intersections with politics and the real-life past really fascinating.
Daddy often said things I didn’t understand, like if statehood passed we would probably lose all of our hunting rights and the Feds would run everything into the ground. My five-year-old brain thought statehood was a new car, one with a really big front end. I didn’t know who the Feds were, but Daddy seemed to think they were going to tell people how much venison and salmon they would be allowed to eat.
Reading the notes at the end confirmed my early suspicions that Hitchcock initially conceived The Smell of Other People’s Houses as a short story collection; it soon becomes clear, however, that the apparently disparate narrative strands are all closely connected. In another book, this could have been clunky and overly reliant on coincidence, but here, these connections seem to contribute to and reflect the novel’s ultimate message: “we save each other.”
There are lots of books I enjoy and a good number that I freely recommend. There aren’t that many which I want to snuggle up to and keep close by forever; this is one of those books. I may even buy multiple copies of The Smell of Other People’s Houses to keep in various rooms, to ensure I am never too far from its intrinsic loveliness.
The Smell of Other People’s Houses will be available soon at GPL.