Reviewed by Leigh Jajuga
I’ve never relished the feeling of enclosure, but Elizabeth Gentry’s premier novel, Housebound, made me never want to leave the binding. Housebound is the book you never want to end, the one that beckons you back to its pages.
Gentry’s novel has a way of welcoming readers into the soft disquietude of their own memories, asking to recollect small happenstances, the framework of our present lives. While reading Housebound, I felt as if I were placed behind some gossamer curtain, but when I reached out to draw the curtain back and touch the novel’s bleeding mulberries or the grooves of a stained-glass window, I pulled my hand back only to feel the filmy deception of memory.
Analogous with the novel’s constant sense of foreboding, an ominous undertow shifts between the lines of the pages. In Housebound, fear loosens its grip from grossly traumatic events and becomes duly reassigned to encompass the incidental. Gentry writes, “although…most dangers came from the spiritual world, this story surely was strong evidence that the material world provided the real terrors––the incidents that occurred without warning or reason.” As sinister happenings in Housebound gradually come to light, they become darker and darker in their own illumination.
The novel begins with Maggie, the eldest of nine children, on the verge of leaving her insular upbringing for a job in an unnamed city. Before she departs, we realize the act of leaving is suspiciously improbable. The speculated witch whom Maggie meets seems skeptical of her ability to go at all: “‘It’s such a surprise that you really are able to leave,’ the witch said with a small frown, as if puzzled by a problem.”
What Maggie seems unable to escape is a history dimmed by her own memory. In order to recover these lost memories, Maggie must leave the confines of her home, where she begins to meet a series of oddly familiar strangers willing to reveal unsettling pieces of her family’s history.
While the characters seem doubtful Maggie will be able to leave, she also doesn’t seem to have the option to return. The house, as if it is its own mechanism, “won’t have her,” and she is banished to a forest scandalized by rumors of vagrants, a “fat lady” who lures children to her home with sweets, a “prowling man” skulking about the woods, and memories that are disorienting when they begin to resurface.
As Maggie enters the forest, its inhabitants set the framework for a whodunwhat, rather than a whodunnit, mystery. Yet while we begin to uncover the truth behind Maggie and her family, there’s no way to know what the exposure of their lost histories will bring in the end. Perhaps they “would scatter when the corpse among them was revealed . . . doubtful about what it was they were hearing” when their secrets are unearthed.
The “corpse” of the family is the most troubling aspect of Gentry’s novel. The fate of the family seems contingent on one event in particular, an explicit and unapologetically duplicitous representation of one man’s sexuality. Issues of gender and LGBQ concerns come to light in high wattage, leading me to question the statements Housebound makes about the nature of women and men, women who appear forever victimized, and men who seem evermore villainous and malevolent in Gentry’s novel.
The problematic aspects of the novel only add to the totally ensnaring quality of the work. This is a book whose parameters cannot be defined, only fleshed out. As Gentry explains of her characters, “no one hardly needed to leave the house to experience the harrowing range of emotional possibilities in this world––neglect and doubt, deception and rage.” Not only is the emotional range sweeping in Housebound, but Gentry’s ability to span a variety of subjects including sexuality, gender, and self-preservation make Housebound a book that is difficult to leave.
Leigh Jajuga is a poet and student at Central Michigan University. She is the managing editor for Open Palm Print, an adviser for The Central Review literary magazine, and an editor at Captain Hook Books. Her poetry has appeared in Open Palm Print and The Central Review, but her work can also be read in the bathroom stalls of various dank bars spotting the Midwest.