Sometimes it’s difficult to see the story for the words in The Paper House (published by Picador/Pan Macmillan Australia, 2016), the debut novel of Australian journalist and writer, Anna Spargo-Ryan. But let me elaborate before going any further. Heather and Dave are a young couple who move to Melbourne, so Dave can take up a teaching appointment.
Describing their arrival in the city, after having previously lived near briny Kati Thanda-Lake Eyre, in South Australia, Heather says: “we strode through Melbourne, red against the greyness, salt in our veins.” We later learn the school Dave works at is “fibreglass and modular”. And then later, when tragedy strikes, and Heather loses her unborn child, she asserts the baby died “with her hands over her eyes in the dark”.
Grief stricken Heather spirals into depression, and those close to her, including Dave, her sister Fleur, and her estranged father, feel powerless to help. She begins living in a different world. Venturing to the back of the garden of their large Mornington Peninsula property, Heather encounters Noel, someone only she can see, who lives in a cottage there, and the only person who seems to understand Heather.
But the loss of her child is not the only trauma confronting Heather. She finds her thoughts turning to her mother, who also struggled with depression. Heather narrates her mother’s story through her much younger self, as flashbacks. Even though these recollections are partial, it is apparent something is not quite right.
The Paper House may take us on a dark journey into the gloomy recesses of a troubled soul, but it is laced with light moments and humour. For here is a story of hope, possessed of a beauty lying in its lyrical prose and enchanting metaphor. It’s over three years since I read The Paper House, but whenever I see it on a shelf at a bookshop, or in a library, I find myself once more immersed in Heather’s world.