Nexus Book Group #5: Once in a House on Fire – Andrea Ashworth

Posted on March 7, 2012


For the fifth in Nexus Book Group’s book discussions, the group tackled, on a recommendation, Andrea Ashworth’s haunting memoir ‘Once in a House on Fire’. In it, we relive her violent childhood. Her birth father drowned when she was five, then Andrea, and her two sisters encounter a succession of abusive stepfathers whilst the families struggle to make ends meet in 70’s Manchester.

Overall, the group were mixed about it. Whilst no-one disliked the book outright, it provoked much discussion as to whether it was any ‘good’, and certainly who it was written for. It probably provoked the most discussion from a book since we started. Given the subject nature, it isn’t surprising, however the aftertaste of the book was a bit bitter for reasons outlined below.

Many of us felt that one it’s stronger successes was in capturing the favour of the time. As the 70’s give way to the 80’s and brand names begin to appear with horrendous hairstyles and clothes, Ashworth’s prose evokes the changing face of Manchester. The name dropping of celebrities or songs is so precise that it brings the time to life, if not necessarily the place.

A common question that came up was whether this was written as an autobiography or as a novel. It seems to tread a very fine line between the two. The ending seems anticlimactic given that there is an air of ‘suspense’ built up. Threads surrounding Laurie being prevented from following her ballet ambitions build up imply that the same thing may happen with Andrea’s application to Oxford are unfounded, but the memoir ends very abruptly, with precious little indication of what happens next. This is, of course, unless you have on your copy the afterword which is recommended if you are going to read the book.

Having been on in Manchester last year, and with the support of Andrea and her sisters, Once in a House on Fire probably works better as a play. It is written as scenic vignettes moving from one memory to another, which would lend itself to the stage much better than perhaps it does in the book.

Personally, I had problems with what I felt was Ashworth’s inconsistent, clunky tone. I thought it wavered from one scene to another without any connections. Many of the Aunts and Uncles floated in and out with no distinguishing characterisation between them making things feel further disjointed. There may be reasons for this, it was originally written as flashcards stored in a box for years, and certain aspects have been toned down so the disjointed nature could be to convey random snapshots of her childhood as they are remembered, her childhood having been disjointed and shredded, in part though this prevented me from connecting with the text as I might have liked.

Characterisation is questionable in some cases. Lorraine, especially, was a character that the book group had trouble sympathising with. It is, perhaps the detached view that Ashworth takes with her story, which causes problems with the characterisation. In writing such a highly detailed and personal memoir she is clearly trying to step back from events. But, in doing so, she also makes it very difficult for me to sympathise with her characters – especially when these are real people in real situations.

The tone of the book is very matter-of-fact. These events happened without any analysis of why, or how to prevent them. It must not be forgotten that it is remarkably admirable, not only the strength of courage, but the bond between the family that kept them together. But it does feel as if this is written for herself rather than to tell a fable, or for victims of domestic violence to learn anything from. The escape for Ashworth is her intelligence which awards her a place at Oxford, not a common occurrence back in the 80’s, much less a common occurrence for those who might find themselves in this situation. Whilst a wider audience might be appreciated, there isn’t anything to take away from the book for a wider audience. Leopards haven’t changed their spots by the end, and the future is uncertain, which is more irritating than anything by the end of the book, especially as they all have a dubious future facing them.

The Fiction Stroker gives Once in a House on Fire three strokes out of five: