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Friday, December 30, 2011

Once on a blog on fire

In about 2000 Once In A House On Fire was everywhere, like a track that everyone was listening to except me. In book shops and coffee shops and on buses, the lot. I was working like a maniac for my A Levels at that time, on the final straight to my long time ambition, to get into Oxford. What with Chaucer and John Donne and Suetonius and John Stuart Mill and all the rest, a passing interest in Andrea Ashworth’s memoir, available in all good book shops and not the subject of an imminent examination, was put on the deal-with-me-another-day shelf.

That “other day” has just come to pass, and 12 years after first deciding upon it, I have read Once in a house on fire. It has set me on fire too. It is a candid, monstrous and poetic source of truth and light and I am amazed by it.

Andrea Ashworth’ story begins when she is 5 years old and her painter and decorator father dies in a freak accident, leaving her young mother a widow with two little girls to look after alone. There then follows a tale of two step-fathers, of beatings and punchings and unending anxiety. In addition to the violence, there is sexual abuse, although this is less serious and shorter in duration. It feels wrong to be calibrating such things but there you are. Andrea’s mother shrinks from a nice looking good time girl to a bruised and emaciated desperate heap of whom even kindly relations despair. All of this takes place against a backdrop of grinding poverty, potato dinners and periodical homelessness.

Most of us can remember things from childhood, but Ashworth seems able to remember things as they happened. Her memories do not have the feeling of having been re-processed and squished into convenient shapes and sizes. They are what they are. They are both real and urgent.

Like that other memoir of domestic warfare Chelsea Child, there is a mismatch between the deprived circumstances of the writer in childhood and her ability to write so fluently in adulthood: one is left wondering how she managed it. The big difference is that in the case of Once In A House On Fire, we know from the inside flap that Ashworth is (or at any rate was) a junior research fellow at Oxford. Therefore, we know that despite it all, somehow, she must find a means of escape. As a result, I for one raced through the narrative, looking for where the road out must be.

Truth, it turns out is stranger than fiction, and Ashworth was never on the receiving end of a “big break”. There were no towering intellectuals in the family or the neighbourhood, no amazingly inspirational teachers. She did get a scholarship, but could not take it up. So, she went to a bog standard school like all of her neighbours. Hers was the triumph of an outstanding mind against a sea of troubles and the terrible truth is that it must have been in some way attributable to those troubles. She is not too shy to acknowledge that.

The strange love and attachment which the abused feels for the abuser is dealt with – both in the person of Ashworth’s mother, and in the child herself who admits to remember the pulls of love towards men who beat her up and treated her as a household slave. There is nothing shy or pedestrian about this novel, and I find that I can’t say more than that.


  1. Sounds amazing -- I steer clear of misery memoirs but might be tempted by this one.

  2. I do not know whether I can take such a big dose of sadness but the book certainly sounds intriguing.

  3. In the back of my mind I seem to remember reading something about Ashworth and this book - recently, I think. I love how you speak about it here and might just give this one a try in 2012, and then follow with something very easy and happy.

  4. What a brilliant story! It is so wonderful when a person rises up from what could have been just ashes and hopelessness. I have great admiration for people such as Andrea.
    Thank you for this post!

  5. Oooh, I read this a couple of years ago, it's amazing isn't it? Great review Hannah. For those on the fence, it's not a miserable read (as I recall) although tough.

  6. Great review - I hadn't heard of this.

  7. Dear Everyone - thank you for visiting and commenting. i cannot recommend the book enough and although it is fair to call it a "misery memoir" it is not as pat as that. I loved it.
    Happy reading all, Hannah


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