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Review-a-Day
Esquire
Wednesday, April 19th, 2006


 

The Housekeeper

by Melanie Wallace

The Trap of Home

A review by Anna Godbersen

Whiskey is the drink of choice in The Housekeeper, Melanie Wallace's harsh and lyrical second novel, and later on it will also serve as an antiseptic. The time is the 1970s, although it could be almost any era when winters are mean and people live impoverished, rural lives. Wallace begins with a scene of such archetypal cruelty it is almost medieval: Someone has tied a young boy to a tree, and no one has considered it their business to set him loose. Jamie Hall is a seventeen-year-old ward of the state on the run, and a haunted waif type, but she is not so beaten down that she'd stand by and do nothing. She unties the boy, opening the door on a whole landscape of violence.

That landscape is one of Wallace's main accomplishments here. The description of the old mill town Dyers Corner, where Jamie's grandparents were from and where she can't help but return, is thick with detail that never lets up. We get a sense of "the rusted hulks of twisted metal," under the "fishbelly sky," and the "clutter, the buildings, the trodden trail of spilt slop," early on, but the landscape keeps coming, bleak and barbarous, until we understand it as a trap. It is for the boy, at any rate, whose mind has been stunted by his environment, and for Jamie's lover Galen, who has served in Vietnam and also in prison for a crime he didn't commit. The simple act of untying the boy puts in motion a chase of sorts that will end tragically, with a dramatic reminder of how difficult it is to be free.


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