Like A House On Fire by Caroline Hulse: Entertaining, thoughtful and uplifting delight - book review -
Using all the sharp wit, immense imagination and human empathy Hulse plunges us into the complex lives of the dysfunctional Foy family as the terminally ill matriarch plans a party that could well be her final salute.
Most people of a certain age will recall Mike Leigh’s brilliant BBC TV production of Abigail’s Party in 1977… a dark comedy of manners centred on one excruciatingly awful suburban get-together.
The play’s searing satire on the aspirations and tastes of an emerging new middle class was a classic of its type, and there are echoes of the same uncomfortable and yet achingly familiar vibes in Manchester author Caroline Hulse’s acutely observant and wickedly funny new novel.
Using all the sharp wit, immense imagination and human empathy that she brought to her refreshingly clever debut novel, The Adults, Hulse plunges us into the complex lives of the dysfunctional Foy family as the terminally ill matriarch plans a party that could well be her final salute.
With secrets flowing through their veins as thick and fast as their shared blood, this is a family steeped in old resentments, hidden insecurities, unspoken feelings, and shocking revelations which spill out over a murder mystery day that delivers more fire-power than any of them could have imagined.
After ‘eleven years together and a marriage,’ thirty-seven-year-old vet Stella Foy and her teacher husband George Mandani are basically ‘sick of each other,’ so they have separated and are now planning to divorce.
They are going through the motions of seeing a marriage counsellor but when you have blazing rows about misquoting Jurassic Park, leaving a Coke can on the side of the bath, and fitting car seats for hypothetical kids, it seems like time to quit.
Meanwhile, Stella’s terminally ill mother, Margaret, whose motto is ‘don’t talk about it and then it doesn’t exist,’ is throwing a lavish murder mystery party for her wedding anniversary and everyone’s roles have been carefully thought out.
Problem is, Stella hasn’t yet told her mum that she’s divorcing George and he is not only on the invite list, but also been given a major role in the play. And with her dad Tommy still smarting from giving up his beloved family grocery business, her mum’s cancer diagnosis, and some very odd, emotional behaviour from her older, married sister Helen, now is not the time to tell everyone.
All Stella and George have to do is make it through the day without their break-up being discovered… although it turns out that having secrets runs in the family, and the murder mystery will have a surprisingly explosive ending.
Like A House On Fire is so brilliantly wrought that readers will feel like they are among the cringing guests at this horror peep show into a family which hasn’t really known itself, and each other, for too many years.
With her keen eye for the rancour and recriminations of tired relationships, Hulse paints a vivid and caustically amusing portrait of the warring Stella and George as they pick over the detritus of past rows and pay fruitless visits to their long-suffering marriage counsellor.
As the party day looms, and mishaps and misunderstandings abound, the tension ratchets up and the celebrations unravel in a toe-curling, laugh-out-loud succession of dramas which will have readers hiding their eyes and diving for cover.
But Hulse is essentially a compassionate writer… and so there are also bittersweet moments of unexpected emotional intensity amidst the comedy which only serve to make this such an entertaining, thoughtful and uplifting delight.
(Orion, hardback, £14.99)