By Jessie Goetzinger
The Dutch House
Ann Patchett, Bloomsbury, 2019
Will and Testament
Vigdis Hjorth, trans. Charlotte Banslund, Verso, 2019
The Last Black Man in San Francisco
dir. Joe Talbot, A24, 2019
‘Do you think it’s possible to ever see the past as it actually was?’ asks Danny Conroy, the protagonist of Ann Patchett’s The Dutch House, parked in his sister Maeve’s car opposite his childhood home. It has been many years since he last lived there. The most important settings in Patchett’s most recent novel are not, as one would expect, impressive rooms in the titular house, but rather any location that offers one remove from it. Everyone in town can peer inside of ‘the Dutch house’ from the street, the glass panes on the front and back ‘as big as storefront windows’; from inside the enigma of the luxurious house seems too grand, too all-consuming to be understood logically. Only with considerable distance might Danny and Maeve unpick the elaborate fantasy of their childhood: the ‘ridiculous fairy tale ballet’ of it all.
Patchett’s narrative borrows all the best tropes of those children’s stories. The wicked stepmother, the absent mother, the children in exile. Set across five decades, The Dutch House is an unconventional story about inheritance: we are aware from the outset that the house and its contents never really belonged to the Conroy family, making the following custody struggle a morally complicated one. As the name suggests, from 1922 the house was occupied by a rich Dutch family, the Van Hoebeeks. The lingering presence of the house’s original owners haunts the novel: ‘the Van Hoebeeks weren’t the story, but in a sense the house was the story, and it was their house’.
Mr. and Mrs. Van Hoebeek’s intimidating portraits watch everything unfold from the centre of the house, one immoveable constant throughout the decades, but all of their belongings remain in the house: clothes, furniture, even ‘a silver hairbrush on the dresser in the master bedroom that had hair in it’. Though every member the Van Hoebeek family is dead, their bloodline finally dried up, they linger in the Conroy’s home; the house is like a stage dressed with props, empty of actors.
A prominent theme in the novel is the tangled nature of the relationship between man-made things and their owners. Do we possess them or are we possessed by them? The staying power of material possessions often guarantees them an autonomous life outside of their owners, they live on after we are gone, just as the portraits of Mr. and Mrs. Van Hoebeek provide a constant reminder of the past. A portrait of Maeve Conroy which hangs alongside the Van Hoebeeks, is a perfect likeness, ‘in a red coat, her eyes bright and direct, her black hair loose’. The painting is so good that the channel of replication seems to run in both directions: Maeve looks as much ‘like a painting’ as the painting looks like her. When Danny is forced to leave the painting behind in the house he feels ‘like [he] had somehow left’ his sister herself behind, ‘back in the house alone where she wouldn’t be safe.’ The boundary between human and house, object and individual is continually blurred. Danny can ‘feel the entire house sitting on top of [him] like a shell [he] would have to drag around for the rest of [his] life’ – like a phantom limb.
In Joe Talbot’s Sundance Film Festival award-winning film The Last Black Man in San Francisco, an early montage establishes the difficult relationship between houses and the people who own them as an integral theme. Beautiful close-up shots of the details of Victorian-style houses are juxtaposed with fleeting glimpses of body parts; we consider windows and eyes, mouths and doors, facades and faces alongside each other. Ownership is a complex issue here. Based on lead actor Jimmie Fails’ personal experiences, the film navigates his desperation to reclaim his childhood home from new owners, set against the backdrop of the ongoing racial gentrification of the city. Like the portraits hanging in The Dutch House, objects in Jimmie’s grandfather’s house (leather-bound copies of Dickens and Plath, an old organ, the grandfather clock, glorious stained glass, marble statues, mosaic lampshades) provide him with the tools needed to continue his self-mythologising project. The brilliant attention to detail in every shot is reminiscent of Wes Anderson’s particularity: each tableau is worth a thousand words, story-telling through motionlessness. This lack of movement, the house’s inability to accurately reflect generational change is an issue at the heart of the film. How do we preserve the past, while looking to the present? If we start staking claims on the material world around us, where does this desire to ‘fight for your land’ end?
‘Who should be here more?’ asks Fails, a question that similarly drives the inheritance dispute over a pair of holiday cabins in Vigdis Hjorth’s chilling Norwegian bestseller Will and Testament, newly translated into English by Charlotte Banslund. This uncomfortable novel draws on Hjorth’s own family history to narrate the struggle of a young woman, Bergljot, dragged back into the affairs of a family that she has been estranged from ever since she shared with them that she had been sexually abused as a child by her father. Her story is disregarded by her mother and sisters, and continues to be denied throughout the novel. The cabins themselves are a black hole in the narrative. Unlike Patchett or Talbot’s protagonists, Bergljot will do anything to avoid thinking about the houses: ‘and no wonder … who wants to live at a crime scene?’ The cabins are intrinsically tied to her parents, the eyes in the furniture and walls have seen years of conflict, and they remember. They are silent witnesses. ‘If you had the choice’, asks Bergljot’s friend Klara, ‘which would you pick? A cabin on Hvaler and your parents or nothing?’ ‘Nothing’, she replies, without hesitation. The battle for the cabins, which Bergljot eventually becomes invested in, is about much more than material possessions: it is about legacy and potential archaeological record, it is about which version of history gets to be preserved, and who it belongs to.
The childhood home is at the beginning and the end of everything in these three works about young adults trying to find their place in the chaos of things: ‘the street of [our] childhood … is the root of [our] being’, Bergljot explains, because it ‘anchor[s] us on the days we are ‘utterly lost’. The reminder of stability in unstable times, how Virginia Woolf regularly finds herself ‘worshipping the chest of drawers, worshipping solidity, worshipping reality, worshipping the impersonal world which is proof of some existence other than ours’. The flipside of such unyielding material markers is that they can prompt a failure of the imagination, a belief in a singularity of being. ‘People aren’t one thing’, Fails’ best friend Mont reminds him, ‘you extend beyond these walls, beyond your forefathers.’
JESSIE GOETZINGER reads English at Christ Church. She doesn't think it would be unhelpful if she could give herself a nosebleed on cue.
Art by Anna Covell