Like a House on Fire — A Beautifully Written Collection of Short Stories

The cover already stimulates many of the strong elements in the book.

This story, I hope will be more exciting than the likes of many other stories that I have written for you, my audience. No, no more hard books, no more out of the world literature, no more easy books that you guffaw at. This anthology of short stories really felt close to me and relatable, and it simply excites me to the complexity in which the short story writer is capable of expressing the little struggles, joys and pains of everyday Victorian life. Let’s have a talk about the short stories in “Like a House On Fire” by Cate Kennedy.

I have already read short stories before for recreation and tasks assigned by teachers and whatnot, and they never fail to surprise me. You can have a read of my story on Salman Rushdie’s “East West”. They all seem to claw on their knowledge and specimens of a context, like how Rushdie focused on how the East and West met together (Britain and India). Now this is where I discuss about Cate Kennedy’s clutch on life in Melbourne and it was impactful to me as a reader.

Cate Kennedy, is a Melbourne author, so I’m not surprised that she addresses many issues and social contexts very well. Despite being born in England, she is based in “Victoria” and all her stories are set in some alike suburb of Victoria. I find it interesting how I attempt to guess the suburb she is referring to in the story based on the description of the hospitals and infrastructure. Now I think I might have only enjoyed this because I live in Melbourne?!?! No, not so fast, let me talk about other techniques she had up her sleeve.

Evidently, her description of the events just takes you away, from small irrelevant things like a lasagna which tasted horrible because, it’s a discount from a pub, so they’re going to get “cheap cheap” ingredients to other random stuff like the smell of the office, the way the sun shines down in the patio, things like that. What I like is how she doesn’t fixate herself to one perspective. Around most of the book is in a third person omniscient, the rest is first-person, and then there was the one story which was using “you”. That was really interesting and intriguing.

It was like your mind was set to believe everything you were told. It got more bizarre when she defined your gender, so although you may be a male, you just temporarily believed that you were a female, that you hated wearing the dress … those kind of stuff. The reference to this short story is “Whirlpool”. Not the one that I enjoyed the most, but it was always an interesting approach to a short story. Bonus: one of her short stories was called, “Like a House on Fire”.

There are approximately 20 stories so I’m just going to talk about a few:

Ashes

This one is based on a mother and a son who are set out to simply drop the son’s father’s ashes into a lake. But in reality it’s much more than dropping the ashes. It’s filled with eventful memories and regrets of the past from both son and mother. She is filled with rage how the crematorium reception simply gave her “a box, not an urn or something suitable for the occasion”. Here’s the irony: the son and the deceased father, they only visited a lake for a weekend, yet the mother feels the strong connection and relationship. What irritates me sometimes is that why can’t the son simply understand his mother’s perspective. It ends with the mother simply too heartbroken to drop the ashes into the water. Yet as they drive back, some of the ashes are accidentally left on her knee, he wipes it off … What a great way to end the novel.

Laminex and Mirrors

All based in a hospital, simply grinding through cleaning of mirrors, and making everything shiny so she can eventually earn enough to able to fly to France and allow everyone to “…meddle with her”. But in her time of cleaning and wiping windows she meets a patient who change her view. No it’s not the young girls with their squashed nose and bandages, it’s one of the eldest and dying ones in the hospital. The old general or major, in his bed, wheezing badly, having served in World War II. Of course, the first thing he would ask, “Could ya please sneak in a cigarette for me darl?”. I could predict this, but could not predict the reaction of the young woman. She enjoyed conversing, and there was some embedded irony:

General: Could you please sneak in one for me? Wait Matron will get at you, that’s right.

Cleaner: Mhm

So this old Grandpa answers his own questions, how intuitive. Well that rambles on, about how there is a Christmas Party, the handsome African-American doctor, and … finally, the climax of the short story. She takes him, gives him a bath, combs his hair, takes him to the garden gives the cigarette. Sudden relief. “In the war, they gave us cigarettes” he defends. The doors accidentally shut, it’s too late, she’s going to be fired, but nonetheless, they charge through the other entrance.

My guess is that it is Sunshine Hospital, mainly because it is enormous, and it has wards which have been demolished and constantly in disrepair.

Okay! Two stories is enough to spoil, now I encourage for you to borrow this, and have a read, it’s a fun read.

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Lowell Bassi

Lowell Bassi

My stories aspire to change the way we perceive literature, from a scary forest into something that we can all appreciate through humour and insight.