‘Like A House On Fire’ by Caroline Hulse

Family life so closely observed it will make you laugh, wince and go – ‘So other people do that as well.’

Like her previous book, ‘The Adults’, ‘Like A House On Fire’  is a ‘what could possibly go wrong?’ novel where the answer is, ‘just about everything.’

Hulse has a talent for exposing all the stresses and strains of family life and using them to build a comic farce that is laugh-out-loud funny and cringe-worthily honest. Her dialogue is perfect,

The premise seems simple enough: a nice party for family and friends to celebrate Margaret’s fortieth wedding anniversary and to spice things up, the party will be structured around a Murder Mystery with guests playing the key roles.

Except that Margaret has cancer, and one of her daughters has separated from her husband but hasn’t told anyone in the family yet so she persuades him to come along and pretend everything is fine, while her other daughter, the dutiful, responsible, always positive one, is so depressed she can’t get out of bed and Margaret’s husband, who took a little job at the supermarket so he’d have something to do outside his shed now he’s retired, cannot adjust to a world were saying, ‘Cheer up love. It might never happen’ to a customer is not seen as appropriate and calling the ‘World Food’ aisle the ethnic section is seen as offensive, and where the young granddaughter has developed an unhealthy obsession with setting fire to thing.

The characters all ring true both in how they see themselves in the privacy of their own heads and how they all misunderstand one another while trying hard to pretend nothing fundamentally bad is happening.

One of the main subplots is around how Stella, one of Margaret’s daughters, comes to separate from George. Bit by bit, we learn how they met, what they liked about each other, what they fought about and what finally drove them apart (which was probably a Coke can – you have to know the context for that to make sense). It’s the little details that bring this alive, like Stella’s simple requests to George when they move in together: can he please close cupboards and drawers after using them and please stop switching off the kettle and the toaster at the wall. George is, of course, incapable of remembering these instructions or understanding why they’re important. This stuck with me because my wife also keeps asking me to close cupboards and doors, even though I’m going to have to open them again shortly.

The book is cleverly structured for everything to slide slowly but inexorably towards disaster. I kept thinking: ‘This can’t get any worse’ but I knew that it would but not exactly how. Each frustration and misunderstanding and incompatibility is a small thing but they build up like rubbish blown against a fire door in a hot dry summer.

At one point, waiting for the disaster, whatever it was going to be, to happen became so angst-laden that I found myself hoping that the ancient labrador would make it safely to the end of the book, which, given all the other people involved and the traumas they were facing, may say a lot about my priorities.

What really set Hulse apart for me is that she doesn’t just use her characters as kindling for a comic fire, she carries them through the traumas and allows them to be changed but not destroyed by them. I thought the way things played out for everyone was on the hopeful, ‘phew, that was close’ side of things but remained credible.

The only thing in the book that I thought was a little clumsy was the murder mystery game but this may have been because it was difficult to cope with all those instructions in an audiobook.

I still recommend the audiobook. Rachael Louise Miller did a fine job with the narration. Click on the SoundCloud link below to hear a sample.

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