Domestic fiction is a contentious term, one used disproportionately about women writers. When a man writes about family, it tends to be described in other ways: Chekhovian, epic, national, universal. Domesticity was a nineteenth-century accusation of sentiment, when books read by women were presumed as irrelevant as the thoughts in women’s heads. The domestic was a sphere that lacked authority: the real was constructed as something situated outside the home, and despite feminist efforts that duality endures. For this reason I am reluctant to call Cate Kennedy’s new collection domestic fiction, and yet it is a collection which seems to demand not just the term, but the term’s reappraisal.
Each of the stories in Like a House on Fire unfolds beautifully, each is carefully constructed, and Kennedy’s craft is flawless. Her masterful understatement is at its finest in the more ironic stories – ‘Ashes’ and ‘Static’ in particular draw out the unspoken in intolerable relationships, though only one shines it’s subtle usher’s torch to guide us towards the exit. ‘White Spirit’ gives us some of the cynicism about do-gooders that readers of The World Beneath will recognise and enjoy. But the real star here is the emotional power brought to play in most of these fictions, which touch on relationships, working life, childrearing and many of the permutations of family.
Domesticity does not equal domestication, as several of these stories show. In some, particularly those which focus on new mothers, the ferocity of our animal nature is dragged to the fore, in ways that are both reassuring and disconcerting. ‘Cake’ argues that returning to work after having children is a pressure that does not suit all women, before delivering us a blow of animal power and surrender breathtaking enough to eclipse political objections to what might at first seem like reactionary essentialism.
Each of these stories is a story of a person embodied, and reading them can be a physical experience. Flawed bodies are at the fore, whether they be ageing, breastfeeding, under threat, or trying to connect with other bodies. Often the resolution of these stories is through gesture, movement, a physical touch. A man brushes something from his mother’s sleeve; arms reach around a woman’s body; a drop of blood rises to the surface of a finger. There is throughout a tenderness and sensitivity towards the human body that is utterly compelling. At the centre of this book are stories of women struggling with the internal conflict of mind and body, of social and physical desire, and although this conflict is rarely resolved, can rarely be avoided, its centrality is important.
The cumulative effect of these stories is not like seeing inside the heads of your neighbours, co-workers, or fellow travellers; it is like inhabiting their skin. Kennedy’s intimacy is almost mystic in its attention to the worlds within the smallest details of being. In the hands of any other writer all these disadvantaged or damaged bodies would be exhausting, even cliched. But Kennedy manages to make our domestic and corporeal realities seem as urgent and essential as they are in our lived experience.
Literature can explore inner or outer worlds, but many writers would find this steady commitment to domestic realism a confinement. If Kennedy is not seeking to reclaim this sphere then she is at least exploiting its full potential, demonstrating what can be done within the limitations she has set herself.
There’s a little faltering when Kennedy tries to address other kinds of disadvantage. The child narrator of Seventy-Two Derwents is affecting, but doesn’t have the vocal power of the rest; other stories might end too neatly, and some can veer toward the sentimental. But it is hard to begrudge Kennedy her skill at steering stories to safety when she does so with such empathy and skill.
Perhaps the domestic is something we have laid to one side without really examining, like a plain box that remains unopened, the treasure still locked inside. Perhaps it should not surprise me that great stories can be still be written in the domestic-realist mode, set in homes and in the heads of women and men. That so much can still be said about who we are as people through what happens to our bodies, through how we inhabit our skins, our families, our workplaces, is testament to Kennedy’s great talent. She is not reduced by the domestic; rather, she makes the domestic stretch to contain all we know of mercy and redemption and humanity. There’s no more universal authority than this.