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Once in a House on Fire - Andrea Ashworth

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Genre: Biography / Author: Andrea Ashworth / Edition: New Ed / Paperback / 336 Pages / Book is published 2004-02-06 by Macmillan Children's Books

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    6 Reviews
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      05.08.2009 11:47
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      COULDN'T PUT IT DOWN!

      The story is a biography seen through the eyes of the author, from when she was a young child up until adolesence. Andrea has two younger sisters, Laurie and Sarah and they are brought up by their mother, Lorraine, on a working class council estate in Manchester in the 70's and 80's.
      Andrea's biological father died of a drowning accident when she was only 5 years old.

      It wasn't that long before she met her second husband, Peter Hawkins. With him she had her third child Sarah. This soon develpoed into a very abusive time for the children and Lorraine- at the hands of Hawkins. The family somehow stuck together and emigrated to Canada, but the abuse didn't stop there. If anything it got worse. After returning the marriage soon ended. Hawkins wouldn't let it die and continued to hassle the family. Hawkins eventually became a thing of the past, and Lorraine and the family could finally rest.

      Lorraine though was convinced about her next man, Terry. He seemed to be the opposite of Hawkins. Loving, charistmatic, solvent, good with kids. The story develops when Terry is sent to prison for some 'dodgy dealings which puts a whole new light on things. When he comes out he can't find work which in turn makes HIM abusive, just like Hawkins. Deja vu!

      The most important think yet to be mentioned is the human spirit and courage shown by Andrea, even at a young age. By her Mothers' own admission she was 'the glue' that stuck her sisters' and Mother together. Her Mother went through severe bouts of depression when she was on her own. She only seemed satisfied 'when she had a man'. Andrea took over the role as a Mother to her two sisters. Not only doing the manual everyday tasks but also emotional support, which is a situation of enormous virtue and spirituality, and you can only really understand this from reading the book!
      When the physical abuse was going on she also on many occasions had the tact and diplomacy to keep tempers to a minimum.

      She of course was doing this with trying to keep up with her schoolwork. Andrea was certainly an academic. She loved to read. She had particular fondness for English Literature and throughout the book she would snatch vital reading time under torch light. Of course she goes on to write this book so it's fine in this review to reveal that she was successful in life afterwards- in fact she went to Oxford and achieved all of her academic qualifications!

      I can't stress enough what a success this has been for Andrea despite the journey she has had. She had the intervention of a couple of Aunties and grandparents when looking after domestic issues but she did most of it on her own.
      One thing that I despised through the novel was the selfishness of her Mother. She simply didn't make much of an effort for her kids'. She also stood by and watched her husbands beat her kids'. Andrea's Mother now lives in Devon and is quite content with her life. Andrea forgives her mother as she says Lorraine has to live with guilt every day.

      EDUCATION, EDUCATION, EDUCATION.!!!
      It's been said before this as you may recall. I think there's a strong, very strong theme throughout the book on the importance of education. It sounds an old cliche but it's so true. With Andrea, her education was her saviour! It helped her get through her rocky journey and gave her strength to carry on. She never lost sight of her dreams and despite what was thrown at her she still didn't loose sight of what she ultimately wanted. This could be used as an example to young people today, to somehow get through to them, and hopefully parents'- the importance of staying focused at school. Education is paramount for self-esteem and all round well being!!

      Andrea's sisters are both doing fine now in later life, and even as a child, Andrea's spirit and determination rubbed off on her sisters'. She was really acting as a strong parent, were her mother failed!

      Andrea had a fleeting visit from her second stepfather a while ago. She felt a slight 'daughterly feeling' towards him and only wished he'd had a better education in life and things may have turned out differently!

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        10.05.2007 21:24
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        A twist on an old tale.

        Recently I’ve been on one of my reading sprees. Friends that know me well can testify to this gourmet diet of books alone. I might disappear for weeks at a time while I immerse myself in torrents of books…unfortunately I have yet to coin a phrase for a reading frenzy. These incidents tend to coincide with events such as Mother’s Day, birthdays and Christmas. For those not in the “know”, my daughter and son-in-law share my reading frenzy and are happy to pass on their own personal gems to me. Luckily my two-year-old grandson is still at the stage of Noddy and Thomas the Tank Engine, but give him time!
        Yes, I am getting to the point…give me a chance.
        With a bookworm family Amazon and occasionally Ebay are busy sending books, old and new, to me and my family. Since it’s cheaper to buy in bulk then I find a mixed bag of literary treats, but I’m not complaining. Amongst my last consignment was the National Bestseller of 1998, “Once in a house on fire “ by Andrea Ashworth.

        Now I must admit that all the positive “blurb” put me off. Some of the plaudits were just too good to be true and one national newspaper comparing it with “Sons and Lovers” nearly had me chucking it in the bin. That and my own personal distaste of the “local slum girl makes good” book nearly clinched it. But I will read anything when bored and on a rainy day in late March I finally succumbed. I opened the book, read the first page and then did my usual thing. I went on the ‘Net to find out who this young author had been and was now.
        Born in Manchester in 1969, the young Andrea survived a harrowing upbringing to eventually attain her heart’s desire and go to university, where I read she has made good on her potential. Well done Andrea, as a single parent I salute your achievements. (My own daughter made good on a 1st honours degree in English less than two decades later than you, but it was never easy without the silver spoon, was it?)

        The narrative opens with the briefest of chapters. Andrea’s father drowned in a puddle when she was just five years old. I liked this opening with its tragedy reduced to something the whole extended family could get their teeth into, and believe me, Andy’s family was a teeming mass of humanity, some good, some bad, just as life is. With a remarkable eye for detail, Andrea carries on the story of her family and with this I mean her own natural family, her mother and her two sisters. Men come and go later on in the story, but now the second husband decides to try his luck in Canada. The mother and her three girls are transported to a place where they don’t belong and both mental and physical abuse is heaped upon the mother and Andrea. Before long the women return to the UK and Manchester, starting up as if they have never been away. Various “uncles” come and go. Andy’s mum suffers from deep depression and however hard she tries to do right she always fails.
        With her third husband the girls seem happy and settled, but fate strikes again when their new “dad” is imprisoned for dodgy dealings.
        Somehow they survive their poverty and both Andrea and her sister Laurie show potential in different areas. Andy is academic, Laurie is first good at gymnastics but soon starts to show promise in languages. The baby of the family, Sarah, is a misfit. Born of the second husband, Peter, she is white, whereas the older girls come from mixed parentage, Italian and Maltese.

        It’s the struggle for survival and keeping the family unit together that gives the book its main theme. Andrea’s story is there, along with her ultimate triumph, but her mother and sisters weave in and out of the narrative, their joys and sorrows, their belief that things must get better some day. In keeping with the seventies and eighties, the reader is allowed into the family circle and the hopes and dreams that keep them going. As the girls grow up they are not immune to the natural order of life. Fashion, records, first kisses mingle together as each girl explores her own sexuality. In a family where sex was paraded before them along with flying fists and drunken reunions, you would think each girl would have been put off for life. Not so. Andrea and her sisters are as keen to taste the “forbidden fruit” the same as any young girl throughout the ages.
        This is a big warm-hearted book that explores the children’s’ view of abuse, but it also goes a long way to explaining why such children (and the mother too,) continue to feel affection for the parent that dishes out the abuse. It’s also a look at life in 1970’s and 80’s of Manchester.
        Does Andrea feel sorry for her hard life? No, she just gets on with lurching from one crisis to another until she finally succeeds. (You know she’s going to or how did she write the book?)
        The greatest charm of the book for me, is the way that Andrea writes with the thoughts and feelings of her current age. I get tired of the way writers picture the past with the shield of age to filter out the common feelings. In this she earns both my respect and attention. There’s a lovely bit in the book where she has her first kiss. I chuckled as she talked about “clashing teeth.” I would have read the book even if she was a was a normal kid growing up on a council estate.

        If, like me, you can get past the abuse without it affecting your view of the heroine, then this will make you laugh, cry and come away thinking “it could have been me.” In fact Andrea’s story, though two decades later than mine, could echo mine in the poor housing, outdoors toilets etc. Did it ruin my life? No, but I still have a healthy respect for spiders.

        As this was part of a present I imagine it was bought from Amazon, which is currently selling it for about £1.50 used or buy on Ebay at £1.00 plus postage.

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          19.10.2006 15:01
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          Growing up in 1970's Manchester, with abuse at home as the norm.

          This book outlines Andrea’s upbringing in Manchester and briefly, Canada. It is an almost tragic tale of physical abuse, both of herself and her two sisters, and also having to watch it happen to her mum. The poverty they lived in is heartbreaking too – bare floorboards and sleeping all on one mattress – and this is the 70’s and 80s, not the 1920’s. Don’t think this is a run of the mill ‘abused childhood’ book though – this book is quite something else.
          The way she writes is quite incredible, with amazing descriptions of her surroundings – drying laundry described as ‘fluffy angels’, clouds are ‘purple-grey clouds, bellies full of rain, about to bucket down’. She escapes from her grim surroundings through books and poetry (though discouraged by her parents) – and this has certainly given her her beautiful writing style.
          She doesn’t dwell on the abuse, though it is certainly a strong theme – she describes time and time again how her mother has to walk the streets in dark glasses, even in winter, to cover the multitude of bruises. Equally strong themes are growing up – boys, clothes, makeup – and running the gauntlet of a school where bullying was common and cleverness was discouraged.
          As her real father died when she was 5, she ended up with two different abusive stepfathers, with the hope each time that things would be different. The first stepfather took them to Canada to start a new life, but this never materialised and they returned home following a terrible time of violence and drinking. He would stop them eating at other people’s houses because he felt people would think they didn’t get fed at home (which they frequently didn’t).
          The second stepfather seemed like a dream come true, money, kindness – this ended with a trip to prison, and a return to escalating physical violence towards her mother and the children.
          Her mum clearly loved her children, but didn’t do much to protect them – when Andrea was 12 she would leave her alone with her 10 and 6 year old sisters, overnight, often for days on end. It struck me how much Andrea took on board to ‘help’ her mum – and try to prevent further rows – doing all the cleaning and ironing aged just 11 for example.
          When things were good with Terry, her second stepfather, the children were sent upstairs into the cold, made to cook and clean for them, generally pushed out. I thought this was particularly sad – Andrea then took on the role of mother for the younger sisters too.
          Her youngest sister Sarah started to self harm, and Laurie, her other sister, even moved into a hostel to escape their home life. Andrea also had to nurse her mother through a breakdown.
          Thankfully due to her high intelligence, there was a way out for Andrea, going on to study at Oxford - and the foreword to the book does say that she and her family are happy now.
          I hope Andrea goes on to write many more books, as her writing style is quite unique and beautiful. She is currently writing a novel and appears in newspapers from time to time.
          I can’t recommend this highly enough – it certainly stood out from the crowd for me and will stay with me for quite some time. I certainly hugged my daughter a little closer after I finished this book.

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            07.01.2002 20:24
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            The place where I have been known frequently to turn up, and occasionally to work, is split up into lots of departments. Mine is one of the smallest which has its disadvantages (fewer people to cover shifts, harder to get time off exactly when you want it) along with quite a few advantages (fewer people to share all the chocolate with being an important one). The most major advantage, however, is having a manger who know you inside out, especially when you’ve been there for years. Lovely Helen presents us all with gifts at Christmas, and this year, following numerous conversations at work about books, books, and more books (Helen being the only other member of staff who knows how to read from what I can tell) she really came through. My present, in case you’re really thick and / or haven’t guessed yet, was a copy of this book, which she’d read and though I might enjoy. She was right. The book is what I would call fact based fiction, or maybe a semi-true autobiography. What I mean is that we have a heroine called Andrea, who grew up in a situation no unsimilar to the author’s own, but I get the feeling that no one could have that good a memory. While I don’t doubt that she had a horrendous upbringing, I sense that some points have maybe changed through time. Whether this be true or not, the resulting tale is a fascinating one. The style of the book is unusual. If it were pure fiction, I might go so far as to say it was badly structured, because the story flits here and there, this way and that, throwing the reader all over the place. Since this is not the case, however, I’m happy to make an exception. The book reads as if we are sitting down with Andrea as she tells us of her childhood, and so the scatty structure is acceptable if not refreshing. “Once, In A House On Fire” is set mainly in Manchester, with only a quick spell in Canada, which immediately gets the thumbs up from me. It’s like
            the Queer As Folk thing – I love reading and watching things that are based in areas I know. It also shows how little our city has changed since she was growing up here in the early 70s, since practically all the pubs and shops and places are still here (I’d say “places of interest” but that would be a lie. There’s not much of interest in Moss Side after all :p ) Andrea grew up with her mother and sisters, and 3 different fathers / step fathers, all of whom (except her original, biological dad who sadly died when she was barely out of toddlerdom) proceeded to abuse her and the others in the family, mentally and physically. While I would normally say that one of the reasons I like reading is so I can escape this world and become part of a happier one, this can obviously not be the case here. Instead, I can only rejoice that my life thus far has been a fair bit happier than hers was. Andrea’s mother didn’t do that badly for herself when you consider the situations she had to deal with, but she certainly does not seem to know the woman/man fish/bicycle saying – jumping from one bloke to another as soon as death and/or jail present themselves. Aside from the beating, there is little storyline here, but this is not really a problem. We have Andrea’s desire to do well academically, if only to prevent her from ending up like her mother, but this story as told to a much lesser extent than the torture. The writing is so compelling though, that even when history repeats itself (as it inevitably does), you want to keep reading to see if this time something will be different. Completely different from the usual comedy / romance books I bury my nose in, I found this book really interesting. Despite not having slept for a number of nights, I found myself reading until the wee hours or Sunday morning to get it finished. This book takes the reader on a roller coaster ride through Andrea’s life,
            and lets us see the triumph of the human spirit in the face of adversity. Well worth a read, even for those of you who think Watford Gap is north.

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              13.11.2001 08:25
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              A stupid freak accident robbed Andrea of a loving father at the age of five. Her mother, widowed at just twenty-five years old, was distraught, not least because she was left alone to raise Andrea and her younger sister Lauren. By the time Andrea was six, she had a new 'father'... At first, Andrea's mother considered herself very, very lucky. Not every man would be prepared to take on a ready-made family but Peter seemed only too willing. Soon a third sister, Sarah, was born. Yet this is not a story in which they all lived happily ever after. This is Andrea's story. The story of a young girl growing up in a working class home in northern England in the 1970's and 80's. Growing up in a home where violence was the norm. Peter, you see, was not what he first seemed. A Jekyll and Hyde character, he swung between loving husband and father and violent, terrifying bully. His uncontrollable rages, usually fuelled by alcohol, caused him to lash out at the first thing to hand. All too often, these 'things' were his wife and children. Pain and pleasure. Pleasure and pain. Set against an ever present backdrop of fear. Andrea Ashworth narrates her childhood in a way that will be instantly familiar to us all. School dinners. Kwik Save and Coke. Jaffa cakes, Spangles and contemporary song lyrics drift through the book like old friends, making her story that much more believable. (Our childhood may have been less fraught than hers was but we all ate Dairylea cheese triangles and Mister Softee ice cream.) This constant normality serves to increase the reader's involvement - there, but for the grace of God, go I. Our instant empathy with Andrea makes this book all the more disturbing. Yet, at the same time, the sentiments expressed within are surprising. The whole family experience a dichotomous love / hate relationship with Peter and, even more shocking to the reader is Andrea's portrayal of Peter hims
              elf. Because Peter is not a bad man. And Andrea's life is as frequently filled with fun as it is with fear. All too often, the reader forgets that this is a true story. Andrea could be a novellist - a Laura Hird, Roddy Doyle, D.H. Lawrence or even a latterday Laurie Lee - and her book could be one of the finest, most eloquent works of contemporary fiction you are ever likely to read. Her use of language is almost poetic at times, so beautiful and evocative that it's a pleasure to read. ("Sunshine spilled across her face: grooved with non-stop smoking, its lines said everything her lips were too dry to get out. I held my own face still to hide the guilty thrill that swirled through me as I gazed around the living room"). However, the words, lovely as they are, never mask the seriousness or the gritty reality of the subject matter. (Not surprisingly they include some four-letter words and also some references to racism.) This is a chronicle of childhood. It's evocative, sometimes frightening and yet frequently enchanting, a social history that any of us might have lived - and many of us actually did. It is a simultaneously chilling and warming book, one that never ceases to look hopefully towards the future rather than depressingly to the past. It's a book that will move you and - yes - even entertain you in spite of it's subject matter. And it will certainly surprise you with its in-depth look at abusive relationships where love and loathing fight a never-ending battle for supremacy. Can you guess which one wins by the final page? "Once in a house on fire" - Andrea Ashworth - Picador - ISBN 0 330 35192 3

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                22.08.2000 23:57
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                I would love to open with a quote from this book, but for fear of infringing copyright will refrain!, because this is probably the most beautifully written book I have picked up in a very long time. From the opening paragraph to the concluding sentance I was absolutely engrossed which, suffice to say, doesn't happen to me very often! Once in a House on Fire is an autobiography and opens with the death of the authors father. It is a tale of strength against the odds, of poverty and survival, brutality and hope. Set in Manchester in the 1970's it revels in memories that are pertinant to anyone who grew up during that period. Awash with musical references and fashion mistakes this book had me alternately laughing and crying. What amazed me most about this book is that despite the grimness of much of the subject matter, she is subjected to a succession of violent step-fathers, this book never looses its element of humour. The language is refreshingly unpretentious and her characters larger than life with their distinctive dialects and working class prejudices. This is Andrea Ashworth's first book and I shall definitely keep my eyes open for the next! If you think Roddy Doyle for Girls you're half way to understanding what makes this book great! It's earthy, real, moving and absorbing... buy it! ( heck I'm going to risk a quote anyway! This is on the first page and sums up her writing style pretty accurately!.. 'On the way home from his last paint job, he had stopped to take a pee, my mother said. He slipped in the mud, landed on a rock and drowned face down in a shallow stream. 'Less than four inches deep,' she told people. Strangers dropped by to mourn over tea and biscuits. 'Such an 'andsome young feller.' Everyone sighed at my father's photograph on the sideboard. 'What a waste!' )

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