Other Houses, by award-winning Melbourne writer, Paddy O’Reilly, was developed from witnessing long queues at Centrelink and Foodbank at the dawn of the COVID pandemic. O’Reilly says that the inspiration came from this terrible reality that ordinary people, who lived from paycheck to paycheck, were suddenly catapulted into poverty. Her new novel explores the brittleness of life and the inequity of fortune in a time where class and income fissures are beginning to dramatically resurface.
In Other Houses, Lily works as a domestic cleaner, cleaning other people’s homes. She exposes the entitlement and judgment of her clients, their inhumane demands and strange quirks: ‘We know things no one else knows about our clients. I sometimes pick up objects in the places we clean – a vase, a notebook, a scarf…I give them attention, these things that I believe hold meaning for someone. It’s my moment of saying what I can’t say to their faces. I respect what you hold dear, even when you’re rude to me or barely acknowledge I exist.’
The novel is preoccupied with the things we hold dear, the fragility of attachment and the injustice of circumstance. When Lily’s partner, Janks, goes missing after getting mixed up with a criminal gang, she is left in a mire of terror and helplessness. Janks and Lily have worked to the bone to fund their daughter Jewelee’s private education. Now everything they have worked for is in jeopardy.
As Lily soliloquises: ‘Don’t worry, I’d tell [my clients]. Our houses get dirty too.’
She is hinting at the humility of circumstance, of how any life can be sullied by a wrong turn or bad luck. O’Reilly organises the novel into personal recounts of the two protagonists, Lily and Janks. Each chapter builds towards a climax. Life moves along like molasses, as even after paying her partner’s overdue debt, Lily does not know his whereabouts.
Cleaning and ablution are used as extended metaphors for absolution in the novel, as Lily points out: ‘‘The shower I need tonight is for a different kind of muck, and it takes a long time to wash it away.’
There are moments in the novel that are painfully sad; we fear the worst as the days where Janks is missing drag on. We feel the enormous grief and regret of Lily and Jewelee. We are left to ponder the justice of a system that leaves vulnerable members of society open to criminality and punishment and desperation as they find themselves between ‘a rock and a hard place’. In the game of late-stage capitalism, we are reminded, there are always winners and losers.
Frankly written, the emotional intensity of Other Houses is balanced with lively descriptions of quotidian occurrences where the landscape of inner-North of Melbourne comes to life with scrupulous detail.
Other Houses by Paddy O’Reilly
Publisher: Affirm Press
Pages: 252 pp
Publication date: 29 March 2022