An unsettled childhood inspires a meditation on self and place.
In 10 graceful essays, award-winning poet, essayist, and editor Harlan recounts her singularly nomadic childhood, during which she lived in 17 houses on four continents: 134 rooms, by her calculation, enough to comprise a mansion. “A mansion,” she writes, “lacking in clear boundaries, encompassing bits of Latin America and Alaska, Arabia and California, London and Houston, prefab and bespoke, gorgeous and hideous, common and bizarre.” She haunts these houses, “searching for answers—why your family lived this way, why not even beauty fused with safety was enough to make them stay, anywhere.” Part of the reason for so many moves was her father’s work as a civil engineer on projects such as the construction of the industrial city of Jubail in Saudi Arabia and the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System. But even when her parents relocated to California, they constantly moved, renovating and selling houses. In repeatedly new environments, Harlan honed a sensitivity to “fabrics of light, language, scent, and sound, their inherited and intuited meanings,” which inform all of her essays, including pieces on London (“a place where interesting always beats beautiful”), Stonehenge (which “has long attracted alluring, brilliant, and whack-job theories”), an African burial ground uncovered in New York City, the significance of archaeological artifacts, and homes, including her own, where she has settled with her husband and son. “Sometimes a house wants to be your mother,” she writes. “Sometimes a house wants to hide the evidence. Some houses would smother you with good tastefulness, a claustrophobic need to impress. Some houses would like you to calm down already. Some houses want you to get the hell out. Some houses get silly with nostalgia. Some houses are destined for the aftermaths of true love. Some houses couldn’t care less: you might as well be living in generic anywhere. But no one ever is.”
Sharply observed forays into the mazes of the past.
Pub Date: today
Page Count: 184
Publisher: Univ. of Georgia
Review Posted Online: July 7, 2020
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2020