Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Stefan Kiesbye, Your House Is on Fire, Your Children All Gone (2011)

Kiesbye, Stefan, Your House Is on Fire, Your Children All Gone, Penguin Books, 2011

Your House Is on Fire, Your Children All Gone at Goodreads
Your House Is on Fire, Your Children All Gone at IBList
Your House Is on Fire, Your Children All Gone at ISFdb


Rating: 7/10

The striking title of Germany-born Kiesbye's novel brings immediately to mind and ear the great Tom Waits song "Jockey Full of Bourbon." Yet the title actually references the English nursery rhyme "Ladybug Ladybug" which was eventually Americanized as "Ladybird Ladybird," and the slight differences between the original and the American are reflected in the differences between Waits's lyrics and Keisbye's title (namely "Your Children All/Are Gone").

Your House Is on Fire, Your Children All Gone is a book made up not of interrelated short stories, but instead of interrelated episodes. A few of the episodes can be read as stand-alone stories, but as we move further into the work, the reader relies on knowledge of character relations and previous information to piece some puzzles together, such as the mystery of the mad woman raving about missing children. Many of the stories do not read like the modern short story, and the book fits nicely into that limbo between novel and short story collection.

Like a novel it deals with specific themes, utilizes multiple characters, maintains tone and elemental focus, yet is lacking in a defined plot, overarching resolution or any Aristotelian idea of a unified poetic work. The book cannot accurately be described as a collection of interrelated stories since, in the traditional modern sense, most of these chapters are not proper short stories. Some stories overlap too much into others, and many important character elements are incorporated into a tale via another story. We rely too much on the whole to understand each individual part. Instead, as the title implies, the episodes function not in the way a modern story would function, but rather in the way a fairy tale might. There is a simplicity of structure and authorial freedom in these tales of cannibalism, incest, patricide, rape, and so forth, while the complexities lie not in the parts but in the whole.

Each story is told through the point of view of one of five townsfolk, grown up now but telling of the years spanning childhood into teens. The narratives are for the most part distant and unaffected, no matter of the horrible incidents the narrators are recalling. The voices are similar, but the women are more sympathetic, and their narratives are thereby more involved since they maintain an emotional component that is lacking in the tales of the men. This lacking is not a bad thing, however, but striking, as we read, for example, a matter-of-fact retelling of the cold innocent killing of a sister.

A series of tragedies delivered in a matter-of-fact tone. The distance works well in creating tragedy without melodrama, and unlikable characters without judgement. Unique and powerful, I look forward to Kiesbye's follow-up.

The stories are broken up by their narrator's names, and are as follows:

Prologue
The four remaining childhood friends meet for the funeral of the fifth. Told through Christian's point of view.

Martin
The annual Thanksgiving cooking competition, when Martin's mother takes on the town's baker. Humour with a shocking, Shirley Jackson-inspired resolution. A striking introduction to the nature of this isolated post-war town. A great lead-in chapter as it does well not only in introducing the town, but in implicating the townsfolk in a horrible crime.

Christian
At the visiting carnival Christian meets a man he believes is the devil, and who promises him a visit to hell if he brings him his sister's soul.

Linde
Linde's father is in love with his fellow gardener, a young mother who cares for her bastard son, while the town women speak ill of her, believing she is trying to steal their men. In this one, genuine sympathy for the characters elevates the tragedy.

Christian
With his eldest sister pregnant and the culprit's identity suddenly clear to him, Christian seeks vengeance.

Martin
While out skating the boys bet Holder fifty marks to retrieve an axe from the icy river. There is something truly sadistic to this one, and I felt more affected here than with most, though it's not the strongest of chapters. This event is an important one, shaping some of what is to follow. The mean-spirited Alex, heir to the town pub, the only non-narrator who attends the prologue funeral, is introduced and returns with his streak of mistreating others.

Linde
At the town's influential Manor House, Linde meets a child-like man who seems to live in the garden maze. Strong character descriptions, and an episode that again reveals the nature of the town rather than its selctive characters. The Manor House is a prevalent place and symbol of leisure and success for the town and its people.

Martin
Youthful sex games at the old mill lead to Bernhard getting lost. Evokes ghosts but no ghosts dwell, I found this episode to be on the weaker side.

Linde
Linde arranges a revenge performance on the town apothecary who once caught her stealing, and we are introduced to the town's mad woman.

Martin
Continuing from the previous tale, this once reveals the mystery of the mad woman's ravings.

Anke
Anke and Linde enter the Manor House as the latter interviews for a scholarship. Tragedy ensues and one friend betrays the other.

Linde
Befriends her sickly neighbour, which delivers additional tragedy to the occupants of the Manor House.

Martin
Alex's brother Olaf returns from the sea to take up his life and his abandoned wife. Family secrets and a strong sequence that works well on its own, despite the references to other characters and episodes.

Anke
Alex, now chauffeur at the Manor House, appears at Anke's who desires nothing other than to be the mistress of the manor.

Christian
The discovery of a ghost town just outside Hemmersmoor.

Prologue


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