Written by Ella Walker


Shelf Life

This week Ella Walker assesses The Household Spirit by Tod Wodicka. Is it worthy of a permanent place on her shelf?

pile of booksWas it love at first sight?

Sometimes a book just falls into your hands and you don’t quite remember where it came from. Did you buy it? Did someone lend it to you (sorry if I borrowed this and was meant to give it back)? Or did you find it lying around somewhere and snaffle it? (If you live in Brixton and frequent the Effra Hall pub, a house nearby has a habit of leaving boxes of books on the pavement outside their house for passers-by to take home with them – it’s the dream.)

I’d never even heard of Tod Wodicka but The Household Spirit waywardly found me anyhow and I’m glad. And it’s got a dead pretty cover.

How long did it take you to feel truly comfortable around each other?

For a book about awkwardness and the strange worlds you can build in your head when isolation and loneliness clamp down on you, it’s incredibly easy to slip into.

How would you describe it behind its back?

Just lovely. It’s not a groundbreaking modern classic, but it leaves you with that feeling you get when it’s freezing outside and you’re in the backseat of the car being driven home, bundled up in blankets and dozing while the Top 40 plays comfortingly in the background. Fuzzy isn’t the right word, it’s better than that, and it’s built on such a simple premise.

Two houses on a lonely stretch of road, enclosed on all sides by towering, suffocatingly beautiful mountains and lakes, contain two families that never speak, although they do intently watch each others’ lives unfold. On one side there’s Howie, who inevitably ends up alone after his wife and daughter leave, and on the other, the bright and clever Emily and her grandfather. Then one day, despite the many invisible barriers the homeowners have erected, scaffold-like between their existences, Emily and Howie meet, and nocturnal gardening, sleep paralysis, tragedy and parental anxiety collide wackily, but also quite wonderfully.

“Howie’s just unintentionally humorous; his brain wired so rigidly, his emotions so heavily internalised that his face can barely flicker.”

Could you take it on holiday with you, without getting severely hacked off after three days?

Oh yes. This is perfect holiday fodder – unless you like trash reads for the beach: this ain’t trashy – and as it’s all about the house you grow up in, and the people who scramble in and out of it over the years, it’ll make you wistful for home too (and wonder what your neighbours are really like underneath that politely distant ‘we’re just acquaintances even-though-we-can-hear-each-other-through-the-walls’ scenario you’ve got going on).

Did it make you laugh out loud?

To be fair, it is quite silly at times, but it won’t make you giddy chuckling. Howie’s just unintentionally humorous; his brain wired so rigidly, his emotions so heavily internalised that his face can barely flicker. His desperation to never offend, never question, never appear animated leaves the people around him fumbling to see him clearly. In trying to do so, some resort to screaming from car roofs, some to surprise parties, others to cannabis, but the outcomes always seem to make your face muscles twitch sweetly.

The Household Spirit coverYou’ve had a nightmare time. Would it provide the understanding to get you through/soak up your tears?

It would definitely remind you that you’re not alone, that everyone else is grappling with their own night terrors. It also points out that you never know who might be best equipped to help you navigate a particularly tough time (without being all gooey and righteous about it, mind).

Would you let it meet your other friends?

They don’t know it yet, but Christmas present shopping was ridiculously straightforward this year…

How would you describe your commitment levels – did you put the effort in?

Undoubtedly. I was utterly forlorn finishing the final sentence.

If you suddenly stumbled across it after several years of lost contact, do you reckon you would:
a) Think of it fondly but accept you’d both moved on (keep but don’t read)
b) Pick up exactly where you left off (reread every few years)
c) Ditch it, obviously you were never really friends

A firm b). In fact, a second read is basically mandatory; a third, advisable and a fourth, frankly preferable. It’s so nuanced you could easily be scraping back layers on the fifth and six reads. This is a novel happily destined for scuffed corners, a cracked spine and tea stained pages.

Next month Ella will be reading A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler.


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Written by Ella Walker

Ella Walker is an entertainment writer and book blogger living in Cambridge. She likes swimming in the sea and eating biscuits. Preferably at the same time.