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Once in a House on Fire - Andrea Ashworth
Member Name: QueenElf
Once in a House on Fire - Andrea Ashworth
Date: 10/05/07, updated on 10/05/07 (255 review reads)
Advantages: A true Story
Disadvantages: Some people may think is yet another sob story.
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.
Summary: A twist on an old tale.
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